How to raise the quality of postsecondary education in Canada – Globe and Mail Editorial (October 6, 2012)

Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

Canada’s universities and colleges must find ways to enhance the perennial strengths of higher education, and also to learn how to convert their scientific research into useful, commercially viable products.

Higher education in this country has great strengths – and significant shortcomings. At 51 per cent, Canada has proportionately more 25 to 64-year-olds with a university or college education of all OECD countries.

And as a recent report of the Canadian Council of Academies shows, Canadian researchers – both scientific and humanistic – are among the most respected in the world. However, the number of Canadian patents is not correspondingly large. And the proportion of research done in our universities, rather than in the private sector, is unusually high.

Originally, the phrase “liberal arts” did not just mean the humanities; in fact, the quantitative sciences had a slim majority. There were seven in all; three (the “trivium”) were based in language: literature, logic and rhetoric; four (the “quadrivium”) were mathematical: astronomy, geometry, algebra and, perhaps surprisingly, music – but in recent years, digital media are conspicuous in both music and visual art.

In its essence, such a curriculum is still eminently valuable. Human beings are a language species, but the place of literature, philosophy and rhetoric in universities is under pressure from the mathematical sciences. As much or more than ever, we need people who can communicate well, who can think and argue critically.

The liberal arts are necessary and good, but not sufficient in the modern age. Canada needs to find better bridges between the sciences and technological progress. “Business investment in R&D and technology lags far behind other wealthy countries,” notes Karen Foster, a labour sociologist at St. Mary’s University in Halifax. “Maybe it’s time to develop regional, provincial and national strategies for linking business to academic research without compromising academic freedom.”

Institutes of higher learning also need to differentiate themselves by focusing on areas of specialty, instead of offering students an endless menu of choices, in an effort to boost enrolment and funding. Laurentian University in Sudbury has chosen to concentrate its investments on 14 signature undergraduate programs, five specific graduate programs and nine areas of research excellence and aims to achieve greater international recognition in areas such as mining innovation and exploration, northern and rural health and stressed watershed systems.

This is an excellent strategy. “It’s very difficult for universities to identify areas of strength because every department wants to be recognized as such. These are tough choices to make but they are possible,” said Dominic Giroux, Laurentian’s president. “The advantages are undeniable for the student.”

Specialization helps universities maintain their global reputations.

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