A university education in Canada: A perspective from UNBC

October 24, 2011

I am on a flight from Prince George to Vancouver. I can’t remember how many such flights I’ve been on this year, but it isn’t a small number. The effort and budget expended by all of us at UNBC being “in the North, for the North” is large. We also serve students from southern British Columbia and beyond who have an interest in the subjects and themes in which we have strength. Many come to learn and conduct research in a small, more personal university. We have strong ties to Nordic countries, where we seem to be known better than some in our own province, and we attract excellent students from those regions. Like many universities in Canada, our campus is becoming more international as an increasing number of students from abroad are joining us. We work hard to deliver our programs to the First Nations students in our Region, on our four campuses, as well as through the Wilp Wilxo’oskwhl Nisga’a program in the Nass Valley.

Our new term is well underway, and talk and concerns over midterm exams and papers fill our hallways. While much is as it was last year, I can’t help but feel that there’s something different in the air this year. There is a concern about the economy, on a global scale. These uncertain economic times, and the fiscal realities in British Columbia challenge our governments and thus the management of our universities. I believe the dynamic environment in which we live signals some key features that ought to guide our thinking about the education our students are receiving on our campuses.

Can our universities deliver on the promise to play a vital role in the future prosperity of our country? This challenge at times conjures up groans in our hallways that seem to resonate with the rubbing of ice floes or tectonic plates. I would challenge the notion of “We’ve seen all of this before.” When one considers what is happening to our environment, the consequences of an exploding middle class in developing countries, the trends in fossil fuel-based energy, and the financial state of major economies in the world, I suggest that we are navigating uncharted waters. We must respond and rise to this challenge in a timely fashion if we are to play an active part in helping our communities and companies cope and compete in a world that is changing at a pace more similar to a tsunami.

Providing an excellent curriculum to prepare our graduates with the confidence they need to contribute in this dynamic world has never been more important. We must maintain the excellent teaching of our core curricula that form the foundations of our degree programs. Our graduates must be competent and be able to compete with the best in the world, as our issues and opportunities are becoming more global by the day. To do this effectively, we must continue to examine our pedagogical models. As fruitful research expands our knowledge base we are challenged in delivering a relevant and contemporary curriculum within our academic year. Many of us remain in an ancient and agrarian calendar. These two factors must force an examination of how we deliver our programs if we are to meet this challenge. In this regard, I admire institutions that have embraced the integration of disciplines and interdisciplinary approaches, and those that have adopted non-traditional academic years and course formats such as block-teaching.

Many companies attribute their success to an association with a university. To some it is the idea or discovery that was the genesis for their firm. For most the access to talent and infrastructure on our campuses presents significant benefits. For our students and faculty, these partnerships present a wonderful context to learning and research. I believe there are significant opportunities for partnerships beyond our traditional co-op programs, where the facilities and talents in industry might play a more integral part in the delivery of our programs. For example, we are imagining a new engineering program that would have industry-based labs being used by students and where professional engineers in large forest companies might contribute to teaching.

Our small size and our special mandate in this large region make us particularly sensitive to financial pressures. However, I have found a vigour and flexibility in our young community that holds great promise in meeting the above challenges. I believe that enriching the experience of our students will go a long way in producing a graduate that has the confidence to apply what he or she has learned and to keep learning throughout their lives and careers. I also hope that those graduates will challenge our rather conservative professional associations to keep pace with the needs of society.

A graduate crossed our stage at our last convocation and gave me a warm and sincere handshake and said “Thank you, I had a great time here, and I’ll never forget UNBC”. As she walked off the stage my sense of responsibility for the work that we do was matched with a refreshed sense of optimism, for her as well as for all of us in our rapidly changing world.