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Canada’s universities need to connect themselves to their students and the world

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Antonia Maioni, a professor of political science at McGill University, is president of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

There is no more ivory tower. Modern universities are at the crossroads, of evolving social, economic and scholarly environments. Today, professors and all those who work with them are at the front lines of a diverse, interconnected, globally competitive world, pushing the boundaries of research and innovation, while training new generations of students. As institutions, Canadian universities are struggling to keep pace with this complex environment, while responding to the budgetary, technological and demographic demands brought about by the (welcome) influx of millennials. In a post-secondary system mired in outdated funding formulas, is the importance of teaching being lost in the shuffle?

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It's worth asking the question, as students and teachers alike take to the streets. Quebec's 2012 Maple Spring protests grew into a social movement, but they originated in a reaction to university administrators who argued that provincial funding formulas could not sustain quality teaching and research. This case, as well as the more recent strikes on the campuses of Toronto, illustrates the complex challenges of providing a high-quality educational experience in a context of declining funding per student.

From all those whose work is constrained by squeezed budgets, the collective cry is that high-quality university teaching needs to be valued equally alongside world-class university research. Currently, the equilibrium is off kilter. And too many adjunct faculty and their students are paying the price with poor working conditions and high tuition.

University funding isn't adequately keeping up with the costs and demands for teaching this new generation of students. While some 60 per cent of the current university faculty have been hired since 2000, undergraduate and graduate enrolment rates are up respectively by 50 per cent and 80 per cent over the same period. As universities expend larger efforts in recruiting and attracting more and more students, they have not kept pace with hiring the faculty they need to teach and train them.

Budgets matter, of course, but as a recent report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario indicates, so too do priorities and the question of how teaching is approached: who's doing it, and how it's encouraged to evolve to maximize learning.

Canadian universities are keenly aware that the world's growing complexity places new demands on them to better prepare graduates for the 21st century. Millennials and their successors need, and demand, an enhanced classroom experience that relies on professors who excel in research, innovate in teaching, and understand their responsibilities in expanding knowledge and forming future scholars and citizens.

Several universities are well on their way, supporting researchers and teachers whose work, both in and out of the university, contributes to improving social, cultural and economic well-being. And it's not all rocket science and gene sequencing. The Canadian Century Research Infrastructure project, based at the University of Ottawa, studies social, economic, cultural and political change by digitally reconstructing census data to better understand the evolution of Canadian society across the 20th century. The Electronic Textual Cultures Lab at the University of Victoria is another example. It serves as a cross-disciplinary hub for digital humanities work by students and researchers, as well as industry and government sectors, in Canada and around the world.

Collaborative projects like these provide opportunities to develop new skills and knowledge, helping to provide experiential learning and research opportunities for students. As a result, faculty across Canada are developing partnerships with industry and community groups, serving advisory roles in the development of public policy, and engaging with the wider public on issues that are relevant to their research, relevant to students, and relevant to Canadian society.

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We need more of this. The reality in many universities – hiring and remunerating faculty chiefly for the number of peer-reviewed publications they produce, while leaving teaching, mentoring and engagement as afterthoughts – needs to be rethought. Greater attention needs to be paid to valuing innovative teaching and outreach, enabling universities to attract and retain the best talent for teaching and research that meet society's increasingly complex needs and expectations.

Simplistic solutions such as teaching-only universities or teaching-only faculty are not nearly dynamic enough to respond to such complex problems. We need universities that intertwine research and teaching with growing opportunities for experiential learning, taking advantage of new technologies in the pursuit of developing critical and imaginative citizens.

Innovation is happening, but if universities are to excel in their core role of education in addition to research and service, then the pace of change needs to pick up – from governments, from within academic institutions and increasingly from a demanding citizenship.

In a complex world, we need to adopt a broader view of the university.

This article is part of a Globe and Mail series on the role of Canadian institutions in partnership with The Walter Gordon Symposium – a two-day public policy conference co-hosted by the University of Toronto's School of Public Policy and Governance and Massey College.

This year's symposium, titled Confronting Complexity: Better Ways Of Addressing Our Toughest Policy Problems, will explore how the media, private sector, governments, and supranational organizations factor into the policymaking process in our increasingly complex and changing society.

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