Education’s evolution

By Eric Fung

Not even post-secondary education is immune to the invisible hand.

The second talk in the "Higher Education in Alberta: The 21st Century" series on Feb. 26 focused on the external forces influencing post-secondary education. Mount Royal College President Tom Wood presented "Forces of Change Confronting Higher Education," examining the roles of the new economy, globalization, technology, and the government in education. The Higher Education Research Group, a group of academics studying post-secondary education, organized the series.

"Right now, we face pressure to educate the full spectrum of the population," said Wood. "We face questions like who pays and how much they pay. If we deny someone access to an education, we are denying them access to the new economy. Education and training are major factors in competitiveness and economic development."

Wood pointed out that changes in the economy over the past decade have incited corresponding changes in the role and operations of higher learning centres.

"Market forces are being unleashed on education in an unprecedented way," he said. "These drive alliances between [post-secondary] institutions and industry, other institutions and the government."

University of Calgary Vice-President Academic Ron Bond responded to Wood’s remarks.

"I fundamentally agree with [Wood’s] analysis," he said. "Universities in Canada are in the early stages of [privatization], like what has happened in the U.S. and in Australia."

Another important change accompanying the new economy is the information technology explosion.

"New industries were created with the new technologies, like in the areas of robotics and the convergence of media and the arts," said Wood. "These are brain-powered industries that rely on human capital. This lead to an enhanced role for education in these areas."

Wood pointed out how society constantly questions the role of post-secondary institutions, a role shaped by societal needs and wants.

"In the late ’80s and early ’90s, people felt something significant happening in higher education," he explained. "Pew [an education research group] conducted a survey showing new trends in education. Fifteen years ago, international development was the most important; today, we’re concerned with jobs, jobs, jobs."

Not only the goals of higher education have shifted, added Bond.

"Information technology is not used unilaterally for the advancement of the global economy," he said. "The original lecture [format] has become a relic; it’s been transformed to dispense information in other ways."

The concept of an ‘electric university’ is still far off, however.

"The demise of online educational services came with the demise of the dot-coms," Bond said. "We need to be cautious in emulating private universities."

Government influence also plays an important role in shaping Alberta’s post-secondary future.

"Our position is very different now from 20 years ago in terms of government revenue," Wood said of MRC’s situation. "Only 4.8 per cent of our money comes from government funding; the rest is from tuition and other revenue."

The U of C situation is similar.

"To put this into context, we get more funding from research income than from our government operating grant," said Bond.

The third and final forum in the Winter 2002 series, featuring Minister of Alberta Learning Lyle Oberg will be held March 26 from 7–9 p.m. in Earth Science 162. Transcriptions of the discussions can be found at

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