The world has changed rapidly and many constants are being questioned, even the value of post-secondary education. The assertion that jobs and skills are of paramount importance and that universities do not meet current expectations is rampant despite the backdrop of longer-term, favourable employment rates of university graduates and their greater lifetime earnings and tax contributions. One cannot be overwhelmed by the deluge of claims of a highly educated “barista generation” — global labour markets are resulting in an overeducated workforce for the level required of a job, resulting ultimately in greater unemployment at the “less-credentialed” level. One should not become complacent and presume that this criticism will go away — the faculty complement has to stand up and make its case. But perhaps this also provides an opportunity for more relevant instruction in the modern world. The Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) rage has seen mass enrolments but also mass incompletion. A tutorial system that builds on the plethora of information available through the Internet is being piloted at several locations. But perhaps one should be bold and ask whether the current degree pathways are the most effective or even necessary. Could the future hold life-long learning through modules that provide “just in time learning,” constituting a flexible, SWAT-team approach to problem solving?
At the individual student level, however, the sands are shifting as certain employment sectors undergo cataclysmic changes and opportunities in sub-disciplines cease to exist. One has to examine the value proposition of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. At the B.Sc. level, a student should be equipped with the fundamental skills of inquiry, observation and problem solving, irrespective of training in a particular sub-discipline, and be adaptable to changing trends and markets. At the postgraduate level, one adds a higher level of critical and creative thought and generalizability.
One of the key questions at all levels will be “when to pivot?” One must have confidence in one’s skill set of intrinsic know-how, team building and communication skills to decide when to abandon a particular endeavor and shift quickly. This pertains to the job market as certain sectors downsize, in the choice of a particular line of research inquiry in an academic setting, or knowing when to close down a start-up company and apply the talents of a well-oiled team to another application, perhaps a different start-up. One should think in terms of platforms, not necessarily in terms of knowledge in a restricted space. It takes a lot of confidence to be agile, bold and edgy — to be a first mover not a follower. Perhaps this is the skill set with which we should empower our students — become entrepreneurs who craft their own destiny.
Education should then be broadened to include the essentials of time management, business management, risk assessment, knowledge of cultures, ethnicities and religions in a pluralistic society and a global market, as well as ethical dealings. Awareness of events in one sector and how that effect is manifested in a remote sector will be essential. In terms of a tangible example in the innovation continuum, it would be advantageous for inventions to be scored against marketability — and demand informs further R&D. I view this continuum as a Möbius strip, with no defined beginning or end.
So where does that leave us with respect to education, research and innovation in modern times? Our students should be educated with both breadth and depth of thought, with experiential learning components in international, multicultural settings. Interactions with hyphenated Canadians are a good start but presentist views tend to distort historical realities in home countries.
Knowledge is power. But integrated, coordinated knowledge is even more powerful. Therein lies the challenge — to educate our students and researchers in a multifaceted way that equips them for the challenges of the modern world.