Convocation halls across the country will be full in the coming weeks as new graduates, rightly proud of their achievements, reach out to receive their degrees. While a few steps toward the podium complete a years-long journey for each individual, the scrolled parchment represents a decades-long evolution that has established Canada's position as a global leader in quality post-secondary education.
Among the audience, parents and guests will think back to their own time on campus. Make no mistake: This is not your father's degree. Nor is it your mother's university.
In sheer numbers, there is no comparison. In the last dozen years, Canadian universities have made space for a 50% increase in full-time enrolment, bringing the number of students served each year in credit programs to more than 1.2 million. Why the increase? Because the labour market has demanded it; because, as a country, we need the continued advantage of a well-educated population.
But consider this. While universities have opened their doors wider, ensuring greater opportunities for more people, per-student funding has dropped to a historic low. Clearly, universities are doing so much more today with a lot less.
No one will argue the effects of the new economy. The resulting challenges for many sectors have been substantial. Always institutions of ideas, universities have stepped up, perhaps earlier than some, with creative and innovative responses.
Universities have repurposed space, converting physical infrastructure to meet needs, whether that has meant turning classrooms into labs or offices into teaching spaces. For example, two deteriorating buildings on the University of British Columbia campus were transformed into state-of-the-art natural life sciences research and teaching laboratories. The structures now employ innovative - and cost-effective - sustainability features, including a method invented at UBC of collecting and channelling sunlight to provide lighting, even on cloudy days.
Increasingly, Canada's universities have worked to pursue strategic partnerships and collaborations that make our economy stronger. A program developed with Irving Oil and the University of New Brunswick, for instance, sees employees studying for a tailored executive MBA program in an onsite workplace classroom.
Our universities have been relentless in reviewing operations and shifting resources to match priorities. They are meeting the needs not just of their own institutions, but of their surrounding communities and the country. While they honour tradition, universities are open to change. Many have merged faculties where there are affinities. Far from the classic model of professors and lecterns, online tools have inverted classrooms, putting lectures online and using class time for discussion and hands-on learning. And they have opened up higher education and specialty programs to Canadians, no matter where they live or when they can study.
It's not just the "how" of learning that has evolved; it's also the "what." In Ontario alone, 44 new programs were introduced in 2012 - just at the master's and PhD levels. These programs are in emerging areas such as health science policy, non-profit leadership, community relations in extractive industries, palliative nursing, health industry management and design engineering.
While the dexterity is admirable, as a community we have to ask: Is it sustainable? Quite simply, it has to be made so. Here's why.
Other countries, including the United Kingdom, Norway and South Korea, have financed their university systems to an even greater extent than Canada. These countries chose to invest in their universities to sharpen their competitive edge.
Thirty years ago, Canada was a leader among OECD nations in university attainment rates. Look to those parents in the audience at convocation. Among adults aged 55 to 64, Canada ranks fourth in the OECD. Not bad. But by 2010, university attainment rates for the 25-34-age cohort - the children of some of those audience members - put Canada 15th among OECD countries. Our competitive advantage is eroding because we are not ensuring the financial sustainability of universities so that they can continue growing at global rates.
In the increasingly competitive global knowledge economy, Canada has to compete on its wits. As Irving Oil president Mike Ashar recently told an audience of university presidents and parliamentarians, "The only way we can win - the only way - is through our people. And our people cannot just be 5% or 10% better (than our competitors); they have to be much better."
Universities can help make this happen. Increased federal research support would give more students, in both undergraduate and advanced degree programs, the kinds of hands-on research opportunities that prepare them for careers in industry and civil society. Funding support for more internships, coops and other experiential learning opportunities would ease the transition for students from study to the workforce. And financial sustainability would help universities respond to areas of growing demand in the labour market.
Let's remember that the most in-demand jobs in Canada today require a university degree. These include managers in health, education, social and community services, human resources and business service professionals, and supervisors in manufacturing and processing.
This is a time of dramatic change in higher education. We must come together to chart a course for the future, recognizing that public investments in our universities consistently yield results. That means sustainable funding models in every province and with our federal research councils, that will see Canada continue to be a global leader in quality university education.
It also means communities standing up for universities, acknowledging their importance and expecting more from our political leaders. Without it, we'll drift further from the podium.