The Right Honourable Paul Martin addressing the conference
The Right Honourable Paul Martin addressing the conference


I was in Ottawa on Friday, attending the Canadian Universities Boards of Governors Association annual conference (CUBA). Boards of Governors at universities, at least in Canada, play an important role in ensuring that universities are run in a responsible and accountable manner. They consist mainly of external people, with strong connections outside the university in business, government and community work. They are usually unpaid volunteers who bring with them valuable experience of the wider world and a strong commitment to public higher education.

The conference

The conference participants consisted mainly of Chairs and Secretaries of Boards of Governors. The conference theme, appropriately, was: Universities – Partners in Canada’s Future. I was speaking on a sub-theme: new trends in learning, but first I want to report on some broader issues about Canadian public higher education that were raised by some of the speakers, because they are important of course in their own right, but also because they provide the context to the question in the title of this post.

Paul Martin

The former federal prime minister and finance minister is probably best known for his prudent management of the Canadian economy, helping to reduce Canada’s large financial deficits in the 1990s and leaving Canada better prepared than most countries to weather the financial crisis of 2008. However, he also was a strong supporter of higher education, helping create the Canada Research Chairs program and in particular increasing federal funding for the research councils.

His speech at the conference about the role of universities , although short, is probably the best I have ever heard from a politician – or indeed from anyone else. I can’t hope to capture in a few words all the points he made, but here are the main points I took from his speech.

1. Universities must continue to support and defend the humanities. He pointed out that the financial crisis of 2008 was caused as much by a failure of ethical behaviour as by technical or economic issues. The humanities are valuable in their own right, in helping prepare citizens for a diverse and rapidly changing world. Universities are not speaking out loud enough about the importance of the humanities.

2. He also spoke passionately about the need for Canada to reach out to its aboriginal peoples, through stronger and more equal partnerships. In particular, while recognizing that universities are doing a good job integrating and supporting aboriginal education at a higher education level, Canada as a whole is failing to support adequately aboriginal First Nations education in the k-12 sector. First Nations students are increasing at four times the rate of non-aboriginal students in Canadian schools, and in some provinces aboriginal students now constitute almost 40% of all new k-12 school enrollments, yet less than half graduate from high school. Greater efforts must be made to ensure that indigenous culture and identity are accepted and integrated within the Canadian educational system. Constitutionally k-12 education for aboriginal students on reserves is a joint Federal/First Nations responsibility. However, even the current proposed agreement between the federal Government and First Nations still leaves aboriginal k-12 education grossly underfunded compared to the rest of Canada. Massively improved aboriginal education is an economic as well as a moral necessity for Canada.

3. Universities must press for greater funding for basic research. Without basic research, we will not make the innovation breakthroughs that Canada needs for economic development. Funding basic research is a federal government responsibility, because there is no short-term benefits for industry in funding this.

The panel

A panel consisting of Jeffrey Simpson, the national affairs correspondent of the Globe and Mail newspaper, Perrin Beatty, the President of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, and David Mitchell, President of the Canadian Policy Forum, discussed whether universities were ready to be partners. It was suggested that Chairs of Boards should spend at least 50% of their time on external relations, helping to forge stronger partnerships between university, business and community. David Mitchell spoke of the need for Boards to act as drivers of change and innovation within universities, to counter-balance the conservatism of faculty. Jeffrey Simpson pointed out that subject areas that are thought to be redundant or no longer valuable today can turn out to be really useful in the future. The example he gave was of Russian 19th and early 20th century history, which now tells us much about Russia’s current strategy regarding Ukraine.

David Mitchell, Jeffrey Simpson, Perrin Beatty
David Mitchell, Jeffrey Simpson, Perrin Beatty

Chad Gaffield 

The President of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada argued that there is a major paradigm shift occurring in university teaching, a gradual move away from knowledge transmission to student engagement and the development of competencies. This better supports the development of skill and expertise in research, through student-centred learning and inter-disciplinary, ‘topic’ focused teaching. Digital technologies also support and enhance these developments.

New trends in learning

The previous speakers helped set the context for what I wanted to talk about: why and how teaching and learning were changing, and what the role of governors might be in supporting such change. My presentation focused on the following:

  1. The demands of a digital economy
  2. The growth and development of new learning technologies
  3. New teaching approaches that result
  4. The impact on the campus
  5. Improving the productivity of teaching

After each section I posed a set of questions for the Board governors, which included:

  • are changing labour markets and changing student demographics built in to your institutional planning?
  • does your institution have a plan or strategy for learning technologies and methods of delivery?
  • does your institution have a plan or strategy for open textbooks or open education?
  • how can the institution professionalize university teaching – or should it?
  • how is excellence in teaching rewarded in your institution? Is it enough?
  • what are the markets and the enrollment plan for your institution? Does the programming match this?
  • can we make university teaching more productive and if so how, without sacrificing quality?
  • what kind of campuses do we need when most learning is open and online?

If you want a copy of the slides send me an e-mail and I will send you an invitation to download the slides.

Are these the right questions?

I’m a little bit nervous about these questions. My view is that Boards of Governors should help steer the ship in the right direction but shouldn’t get into the engine room. I’d be interested in your reaction to these questions. Would they push governors too deep into areas that are best left to administrators or faculty?

Also there is the issue as to how much governors posing such questions might impinge on academic freedom. However, that will be the topic of my next post.




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