Voters need to make education a priority

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With an election currently underway, now is a good time to get politicians to pay some attention to the issues of post-secondary education, particularly as there seems to be general understanding that post-secondary education is the key to a successful future for Alberta. However, what is lacking is an understanding of exactly how a university like ours actually contributes to the future. Here is my view of the unique significance of an institution like the University of Calgary.

Universities provide special value to society precisely because no one, not even the government, can foresee the future. We do not know what changes there are going to be for society over the next 50 years. We can speculate, but just like long-range weather forecasts, the further out we go (and even one year is stretching it, if you look at past experience), the less accurate we are. How, then, does a society prepare for the unknown? Universities, if allowed to operate as they should, are at the forefront of such preparation, both in research and education.

Firstly, research: a university is the only institution in our society that can focus on basic research that has no immediate return and that does not focus on anyone's vested interest. This function is essential for any forward-thinking government because it is this kind of research that will shape the future. Without basic research whose potential application is unknown at the time it is undertaken, the understanding necessary to develop new treatments for disease, new technologies and new ways of thinking about society and its needs would not be available.

Moreover, even with regard to research applications that could have immediate value, no one has the crystal ball necessary to determine which of these will work.

A forward-thinking government will understand and accept that there is no way to meddle in this process effectively, and trust that the minds at work at our universities are best-placed to know what research to undertake. Such a government would provide strong support for this research, and understand that both the people who do the research and the resources they need are good investments for Alberta's future, even if the government does not fully understand the nature of the work. It is such trust that has brought us to the place we are today.

Secondly, education: the fact that it is impossible to say where society will be in ten years, and what needs we will have means that a focus on training for specific jobs is, at best, only a short-term solution for our needs. University education is not a short-term solution, as it takes four years to get even a first university degree. Instead, university education is designed to provide deep understanding of a discipline and long-term skills. The deep understanding awakens in students some comprehension of who we are, a love of learning and an appreciation that things are not always simple. Analytical skills that enable us to assess situations and critique material, research skills that enable us to discover what information is available on any subject and oral and writing skills that enable us to communicate that understanding to a broader audience are all valuable long-term skills offered by a university education. Both deeper understanding and the investigative skills are timeless qualities that will prepare our students to lead in an indefinite future.

So what does a university need to teach these elements? It needs a broad range of disciplines, because the most important incentive to get our students to learn is their innate interest in the subject. That is why the core of our university--the faculties of Social Sciences, Humanities, Science, and Communication and Culture--remains strong even while there is push to develop more "sellable" areas.

It also needs teachers who can inspire the students to make the effort it takes to progress in this world of learning. What it takes to inspire students will vary at different levels of learning, but it takes a special talent to inspire students who are not yet familiar with the subject, or indeed with any subject at a university level. These are the professors who can take the dense research and make it sing for the students, and we need to find and cherish these people.

Thirdly, it needs the resources to allow the students to engage in their subjects. It needs the computers, the labs, the interactive classrooms, the spaces for discussion and, of course, it needs these to be properly maintained so that the students feel part of a thriving and cared-for institution.

Finally, it needs enough support for the students that they will not be weighed down by the cost of tuition and other aspects of their education. They need time to engage in learning, not in funding their education.

Therefore, at the end of the day, we need a government that will do a few things. It needs to understand the special nature of universities, and respect their mandate. It must appreciate the fact that neither the government nor anyone else really understands what our future needs will be and that we need universities in order to be prepared to handle this unknown future.

It needs to fund universities at an adequate level and without inappropriate direction, understanding that this is more about funding brilliant researchers and inspiring teachers who operate at a high level than about buildings, though, of course, maintenance should not be forgotten.

Lastly, it needs to allow the students and the faculty at these institutions the freedom to be able to concentrate on the important work they are doing, without working extra jobs to make ends meet or worrying about their mounting debt.