In the pursuit of higher learning

It wasn’t so much a clash of the titans as it was a polite dialogue.

On Tue., Jan. 29, the Higher Education Research Group at the University of Calgary presented the inaugural installation of its "Higher Education in Alberta: the 21st Century" series, intended to stimulate discussion on the future of post-secondary education in this province.

This first presentation featured U of C President Dr. Harvey Weingarten, who spoke to the personal and societal returns of investment in a university education. Peter Menzies, Editor-in-Chief of the Calgary Herald, responded to his address. Both agreed that the university is an integral part of society and that investment in the institution is essential and promises considerable returns.

"Public spending on universities is not the same as spending on other public sectors, such as building roads, prisons or health care," said Weingarten. "This is not an expense. It’s an investment for a better future for the people and the province of Alberta."

Menzies concurred and expressed his concept of an idealized funding model for post-secondary institutions in Alberta.

"Life is full of burdens, some of which could be called responsibilities, fundamental to the survival and health of a species," he said. "Universities are one of these. Funding should be a discussion of ‘What funding is enough to achieve the returns we expect?’ This is a collective decision and needs to go to debate with all of its investors."

Weingarten explained how public investment in post-secondary education has multiple benefits, touching on the workplace, the economy, the art and the health industry.

"The many returns we achieve are inherent in the nature of the university," he said. "The current rate of return is very good, but it could be better. Funding is a partnership of public funds, student tuition, and the private sector. We need to look at a way to diversify our revenue."

Weingarten suggested two avenues of improvement to the current situation. First, as universities have changed from a period of downsizing to a period of growth, the management of universities should be changed accordingly. A second concern is the need for curriculum reform, which he illustrated by comparing the U of C’s current calendar with a calendar from 25 years ago. Fundamentally, Weingarten said, they are the same, with similar academic programs and objectives.

"I get the sense that the university and the rest of society are separated at the moment," Menzies added. "Some people make assumptions about the life academics lead. But academics still pay mortgages and have children just like anyone else."

Menzies elaborated on the essential role post-secondary institutions play in cultural development and sustainability throughout Western society. This, he suggested, shows a certain change from the ’80s and early ’90s, where the emphasis was placed on technical skills at the expense of the humanities.

"I’m not suggesting that the university should be a social training ground," he clarified. "But there should be more emphasis on how to think and how to act. People can leave school with excellent technical skills but with no sense of how to interact in another environment."

Weingarten also addressed the roles of the various post-secondary institutions that exist in Alberta.

"I don’t agree with the idea that universities train people to think while colleges train people to work," he explained. "I don’t think either colleges or universities have exclusive rights to training people to learn or to work. Really, I believe that research universities can do a better job at teaching scholarly skills."

"At one time when I was a student, I believed that university was impractical, with complex ideas spinning my head around," added Menzies. "Now, I can see that its value goes much beyond that."

The Higher Education Research Group, a group of faculty interested in studying post-secondary education, was formed in June 1998 and has been fairly active, explained representative Dr. Michael McMordie. Previous work includes compiling a bibliography of the university’s research on higher education, meeting with various interest groups, and organizing presentations such as the "Higher Education" series.

"This is really a kind of experiment," said McMordie. "We have the intention to stimulate wide discussion on higher education, to see some arguments for a number of different scenarios."

The remaining two talks in the winter 2002 series, featuring Mount Royal College President Thomas Wood and Alberta Minister of Learning Lyle Oberg will be held Feb. 26 and Mar. 26.

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