Patrick Deane, President of McMaster University, highlighted several trends McMaster and higher education will encounter over the next ten years in his talk on Nov. 5 as part of the McMaster Seminar on Higher Education series.

McMaster’s top three priorities over the next few years are to focus on research, specifically integrating research into academia, creating an excellent student experience, and fostering connections both locally and internationally.

However, several trends in higher education will act as barriers that McMaster must overcome to achieve these goals.

The commodification of education and research was among the most troubling of these trends.

“I [do not] dispute that universities have an obligation to contribute to economic growth,” said Deane. “I’m merely trying to draw attention to the fact that as universities have become more central they are held to a model – an economic model – for their operation that is fundamentally hostile to what they’re suppose to do.”

Deane reflected on the founding values of universities, including learning, curiosity-driven research, and a high quality education rather than economic objectives.

For students, this focus on economic profitability translates to their ability to gain employment after graduation.

“It is absurd to think of a young woman in first year, with a life expectancy of probably 86, being under tremendous pressure to make all those career decisions by the age of 21,” said Deane.

Continually, students are attending university for economic benefits rather than intellectual ones.

“It’s very hard for students to do an undergraduate degree now, outside of this framework, and be excited about what the potential for learning is, or what the social impact is that they could have. It is very difficult in a time where all that’s being said to you is career contribution to the GDP.”

While not providing a direct solution to this issue, Deane did offer some solutions to the issue that universities are now mainly pursuing research that benefits governmental or commercial objectives. This can be combated by funding more curiosity-drive research, called basic research. This type of research is exploratory and does not have a specific end goal.

Basic research can be a major contributor to innovation. Deane recalls a conference on the topic of innovation that examined Israel’s investment in basic research in the 1970s, which has now made them a world leader in innovation.

Deane notes that although that specific model may not be perfect for Canada, more emphasis should be placed on basic research.

“What you have to do in Canada is continue to nurture the curiosity driven research, just as well as providing support to applied research,” he said.

Another challenge McMaster and universities in Canada are facing is the growth of the student population. The number of students in Ontario is projected to grow by 60,000 by the year 2020.

As the student experience is one of McMaster’s main strategic goals, these figures will have to be taken into account when planning over the next five years.

“We did remarkable work on the student experience, I think there’s a lot still to be done,” said Deane. “Things like the learning portfolio are I think gaining ground and becoming increasingly widely used.”

He also mentioned the Forward With Integrity fund, increases in community engagement, and the investment in the McMaster Institute for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching and Learning as contributors to an excellent student experience.

“We are at the centre of a national preoccupation or anxiety about our economic future, a national anxiety of our social future,” said Deane.

It seems as though McMaster is ready to face these challenges head on.

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