What’s university for, anyway?

By Steve Paikin - Published on September 1, 2017
Three people, silhouetted, walk in front of a university building.
Society is changing, but universities are changing along with it. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

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A few months ago, after having watched one of our programs about the world of universities, a viewer named Daniel Hidru wrote me the following:

“You state that universities make good citizens, but both my sister and I did not understand why you had this opinion. We would appreciate it if you could explain the relationship between getting a post-secondary education and both being a good citizen and living a good life. Would you be willing to write a blog post answering that?”

Daniel, with pleasure. This one’s for you.

First off, everything I’m about to say is informed by a several-decades-long relationship with Ontario’s post-secondary world. It started almost 40 years ago, when I left Hamilton to become a student at Victoria College at the University of Toronto. At the same time, my mother Marnie was chair of the governing council at U of T, so the usefulness of universities was a subject we often discussed (and continue to: she went on to become chair of the Ontario Council on University Affairs, an advisory body to the minister of colleges and universities back in the 1980s; plus, she was a member of the board of McMaster University in Hamilton and Mount Allison University in New Brunswick).

Four years ago, I assumed the chancellorship of Laurentian University, and as a result, I find myself many times a year at its Sudbury campus, having literally thousands of conversations with students, hearing their feedback about their university experience.

I’m also a visiting professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University, where I go several times a year to share some of what I’ve learned in journalism with students there. And, of course, The Agenda itself has provided marvellous opportunities to explore topics such as the meaning of university, whether a degree is worth today what it once was, teaching standards, the impact of technology on the classroom, attracting international students, free speech and political correctness on campus — the list goes on.  I’ve interviewed presidents, provosts, professors, politicians, and even some people whose titles don’t begin with the letter P: chancellors, admissions officers, development officers, and the like.

What I’ve learned is that universities have, without a doubt, one of the most important missions of any of institution in our province and country — no less than the responsibility for educating the next generation of citizens to improve our world.

That is an awesome mission.

Wouldn’t every institution of significance in this country like to begin every day knowing that the next prime minister, the next brilliant surgeon, the next eminent lawyer, or the next great innovator is being nurtured within their walls?

There’s widespread recognition across the country that, whether you want to be a productive citizen, or have access to the best jobs out there, or want to be properly educated to start the next great innovative business, then a post-secondary education is where it’s at.

Having said that, it’s obviously not all sweetness and light. Every sector of our economy seems to be going through profound changes right now and universities are no exception. There are challenges brought on by shifting demographics, an exponentially greater need for more mental health services on campus, and an increasing concern that a post-secondary education is beyond the means of too many families. There’s also a perception among much of the public that too many of our universities are closed shops and somehow disconnected from the society they serve.

One of the most important missions Laurentian is seized with is using its place on the post-secondary landscape to integrate reconciliation with Indigenous peoples at the core of everything they do. We start every convocation with an Indigenous song or prayer, and it is an important reminder of our connectedness to the issue of reconciliation and the work we Canadian citizens all still have to do. Frankly, I’d love to see every university in Ontario do more of it. For example, wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing for reconciliation if every first year student had to take just one course or attend a handful of guest lectures about reconciliation or Indigenous history before graduating? Or maybe when you register, you get a pamphlet outlining a number of volunteer activities you could do to improve reconciliation. I think the options are endless, and many of our institutions are taking the appropriate steps to be relevant as all these changes are happening. In the process, we’ll make better citizens.

I also see universities trying to be more distinctive from one another, as they try to educate the next generation of contributing citizens. So instead of every institution trying to be all things to all people, I see Waterloo focusing on technology; Guelph as the go-to place for food and agriculture; Huron University College at Western, in London, offering great liberal arts programs; and of course Laurentian focusing on mining, mineral exploration, and Indigenous studies.  

You won’t be surprised to hear that, as the holder of a three-year general arts BA from U of T, I am a big supporter of the notion that universities are not job factories but creators of solid, well-rounded, critically thinking citizens. Why this is still such a controversial debate, I’m not sure. The notion that unless you experience some kind of post-secondary education where you can draw a short, direct, straight line between school and a job, then it’s a waste of time — well, it’s ridiculous.

When I went to university, I took, for example: Latin, film studies, English, French, philosophy, political science, and history. None of those courses led me directly to a single job after graduation.

And yet, when I consider the profession I eventually ended up in, it turns out nearly all of those subjects have been essential to the work I now do. And besides, who defines the university experience exclusively by the courses you take? I discovered almost by accident at U of T that I enjoyed spending time at the campus radio station and one of the campus newspapers. I’m convinced the marvellous mix of in-class teaching, with hands-on experience in extracurriculars, led me to where I am today, which is happily still employed, doing a job I love. I learned how to think; I learned how to get involved; I learned, I hope, how to be a better citizen. That, in a nutshell is a university’s mission. And in my case, I’d like to think  the mission was a success.

Ontario’s colleges of applied arts and sciences are fantastic at giving that on-the-ground training that leads much more directly to a job. They’ve been one of the great success stories in the history of this province. Having just written a biography on former premier Bill Davis, I well remember hearing stories of how the then-education minister helped create the college system 50 years ago.

For example, Centennial College had 500 students taking secretarial science and business administration, among other subjects, in an old abandoned  factory from World War II days. Fifty years later, that same Centennial College has gone from 500 to 40,000 full- and part-time students. In fact, I’m told as much as 20 per cent of college student bodies are now university graduates, who want more hands-on training, directly leading to a job.

But the colleges’ mission is different from the universities’ mission — specialized training versus a broad-based education — and we shouldn’t forget that.   

 There is plenty of criticism of universities, but even among critics it’s hard to find someone in this province willing to argue  universities are irrelevant to our future prosperity. At a time when institutions are under attack everywhere — everything from Air Canada to the local zoo — it’s comforting to know  university is still something many Canadians truly care about, still aspire to, and that is so essential to the future prosperity of the country.

So, Daniel, that’s my answer. 

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