Opinion: Universities at critical crossroads in defining their purpose

Being one of the longest continuously serving institutions in society, universities are a bona fide success story; for example, the University of Karueein, in Fez, Morocco, has been in operation since AD 859.

The university is an entity like no other, and should perhaps be more accurately described as a “multiversity.” Counter to some popular misconceptions, it is immensely diverse and quite adept at integrating a variety of conflicting demands and purposes, from fostering ground-breaking scientific discoveries to transmitting and critiquing knowledge, to supplying teachers for our schools and medical personnel to our hospitals. At its core, it is an institution charged with performing teaching, research and service. A place where degree programs aim to instil subject matter knowledge, form critical and creative habits of mind and teach collaborative and civic engagement skills, while scholars perform a variety of discovery-driven, targeted and public-interest research.

Of course, students should be presented with accurate employment and short- and long-term income data for each program of study they may be considering, but the freedom to choose must remain theirs. What we shouldn’t be doing is diminishing or elevating their choice of college —  with its more geared-to-targeted-employment programs — or university, with its mix of vocational/professional training, and more broadly focused and flexible undergraduate and graduate degrees. Both are necessary and both well serve our modern society; there is nothing to be gained by forcing either to become lesser and more convoluted versions of each other.

What’s the purpose of a university?

Whereas, in England, Ireland and Spain, where students are expected to pay more for their university education and asked to shoulder a greater individual cost burden, the more they viewed their education as a means to a job.

It would be wise for us to cease pitting these conceptions of higher education against one another. We should consider the many and varied benefits of an inclusive, accessible and robust post-secondary education system. On that note, researcher Jean-Paul Addie has itemized seven social and economic ways in which universities benefit society, including being economic engines, changing the face of a city, attracting global talent, building international connections, helping to address societal challenges, fostering creativity and open debate, and improving lives.

However, recent trends are great cause for alarm considering Ontario ranks last in the country for university funding as a percentage of total revenue, and the government of Alberta has slashed hundreds of millions in funding from the province’s universities, while both provinces are the first to subject their universities to narrowly conceived funding metrics.

This is not a time for myopic, ideological and/or partisan sabotage of our post-secondary system in a higher education version of cutting off our noses to spite our faces.

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