We can answer that.

The podcast where we sit down with UCalgary professors, researchers and experts to get the answers to five questions submitted by you.


Episode 10: Can you spare some (higher ed) change?

November 18, 2020

It's Innovation Week in Calgary, and all around the city, people are talking about finding new and better ways to do things, to look at things, to create things. But what about higher education? Universities have operated more or less the same way for centuries. Is it time for drastic change?

We talk to Dr. Stephen Larter, PhD, associate vice president of research and innovation at the University of Calgary, about how post-secondaries need to adapt to a changing world and how a university can help spark an economic recovery.

Mike MacKinnon (MM): Welcome to We Can Answer That. I'm your host, Mike MacKinnon. Each week, I sit down with an expert from the UCalgary community to ask five questions related to their field of study, and to shed light on the topics that matter most in the world. This week is Innovation Week in Calgary. All around the city, people are talking about finding new and better ways to do things. This is especially important, given Calgary's economic situation. But what about higher education itself? The first university, as we know it, was founded in the city of Bologna in Italy in the year 1088. And we've been doing things pretty much the same way ever since. It's hardly a model for innovation. Today I'm talking to Dr. Stephen Larter, who is an associate vice president of research and innovation at the University of Calgary, about how post-secondaries need to adapt to a changing world and how a university can help lead in economic recovery. Steve, thanks for being here.


Stephen Larter (SL): Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for having me, Mike.


MM: Now, as I mentioned in the beginning, universities have been more or less run the same way for centuries. So that would seem to indicate a model that works though. Now, what do you think needs to change and why?


SL: Well, I guess there are a few other structures that date from that era that still exist, like the world's great religions, and I won't go into that today. But yeah, there is a lot of similarity in the structures today and those from the 11th and 12th century, like you say. We still even wear the same funny hats. But there have been some changes and more needed and are coming fast. One of the big changes that started in the last century, is that the university is no longer the sole repositories for knowledge, and now knowledge is much more dispersed and available via the Internet and through other routes. So the educational models of the future will be much more diverse and much more they'll remain linked to the universities, but there'll be much more dispersed and involve lifelong learning and all these other great things that we're doing already. Also, I think the amount of time that people spend getting educated upfront, it's gone up and up and up. You go to high school and you do your undergrad, and then you do your master's and sometimes further degrees as well. I think that's going to change as well, but probably there'll be shorter upfront education at the university, and then more of the lifelong learning online, offline types of structures that take you forward from there. So I think education's now a lifelong pursuit happening throughout your career. It's going to be more dispersed and less localized, and universities will continue to play that longer role, but I think in a different way. The other, I think, big change that has been happening for some time now, is that universities are no longer just places of education and discovery of research, but they're increasingly expected to provide solutions to society's problems and actually be a foundational element in the economy itself.


MM: How do you think universities could be more innovative in their approach to academic culture?


SL: I think changes are already happening. And one of the changes that has already started is that the range of styles of work in academics will change. So if you think about it, we're a big industry. Academia, universities, they're a huge billion dollar industry, and yet they're one of the few industries where everybody more or less has the same job description. There's really no other industry that is in that state. And yet we deliver a whole range of crucially important products, for want of a better word, namely education, research, discovery of new knowledge, innovation and providing solutions to society, and increasingly being a provision of expert advice to society and governments. Many of these are quite specialized tasks. And while there are clear linkages, I think increasingly in the future, there will be much more diversification of the workloads, and everybody won't be involved in everything, just the current kind of workload model that we're mostly involved with. I think other things that will change is a move away from that. Yeah, really 11th, 12th century, very hierarchical culture with a tenured faculty and many younger people, the post-grads, the post-docs who are actually in their key innovation age and domain, they exist in a kind of... The traditional environment they operate with is a sort of a short-term contracts, poorly defined career structures and so on. And increasingly, we can see that that is going to change. So really, I think there's got to be substantial changes in the structure, culture and work environment of the universities.


MM: What do you think are the biggest obstacles to those changes in academic culture?


SL: The great successes and innovation have been driven by people, and the greatest resistors of changes are people. So just as the people have been the innovators, they're also the big barriers to change. The universities like many institutions, are full of incredibly able and inventive individuals, but universities are also one of the most conservative structures on the planet. And that's partly related to our hierarchical structure. Partly as you indicated, there is some success for the business model, right? The universities have been around for over a thousand years, So there's something good for that. But I think increasingly, we're going to see experimentation and trying different approaches to this hybrid environment, that is the university. And obviously COVID is accelerating. The COVID era is accelerating many of the changes happening naturally in the universities. So I see quite dramatic changes in the next decade.


MM: How will changing the way universities operate help accelerate economic benefits?


SL: Canada's universities have been amazingly successful. I'm not just saying that because I'm a U of C employee. But the big success has been producing in Canada, a citizen base where 50 per cent has had some post-secondary educational experience. And that's one of the main reasons that Canada is such a fantastic place to live. It's got a civil society, really unlike most others in the world. Yes, we still have some crazy stuff, but compared to many other countries, we look very rational and together. But we still do have some amazing challenges, both locally in Calgary, Alberta and Canada, and globally throughout the world with environmental challenges, dysfunctional governments, pandemics, threats of nuclear war and so on. There's no shortage of really big challenges. And so what's happening now in the universities that increasingly we're being expected to provide solutions to these problems, which of course will be the main foundation for economic benefit and growth and jobs and so on. And again, this is not a radical new idea. Universities in the past also were focused on practical things. I think people sometimes forget that if you go back to the 17th century, when science was being developed and the Royal Society was being developed, and you look at the who were the leading university-based practitioners of discovery, the theoretical and experimental practitioners of the new natural philosophy, as it was called by Newton Hooke ran, these were the scientists, the natural philosophers, but they also had day jobs and they were part of solving problems in society. So this trend is not a new one. But increasingly, it's going to be one of the primary roles of the modern university. And the UC is really making big efforts to lead in this new domain.


MM: Now, let's talk a little bit about how do you incorporate that into teaching students? How does that change the way we teach students and provide them with degrees?


SL: Traditionally, students have been filled with knowledge. They've been trained, they've been given the skills, they've been given the knowledge. Increasingly in an uncertain world, the training that they need is one to be able to solve any problem, because the world is throwing diverse and new problems at us all the time. And so education will be increasingly focused on, some people call it experiential learning, entrepreneurial thinking. It's the ability to solve problems in areas where you haven't taken a class. So you can't take a class in everything. What you actually need to be able to do, is to be able to apply critical thinking, to produce solutions, to problems and go and find the knowledge that you need to provide those solutions. So the students of the future will go out knowing that they don't know everything, but they'll have the skill set to know that they can solve any problem. And that's what the basis of, I think, education is going to be. So it's increasingly going to be providing a very flexible, sustainable skill set that is kind of future-proofed. Because you leave the university, you stop having that knowledge poured into you, you've got to be self-sustaining in terms of training yourself for that uncertain future. The only thing you can predict is that the future is going to be unpredictable. That's the only thing we know.


MM: Now, you mentioned entrepreneurial thinking. And I'm sorry, I know I'm throwing some curve balls at you here. So how do you promote that and encourage that amongst students?


SL: You do three things. You need a community that's focused at problem-solving and entrepreneurial innovation community and ecosystem for want of a better word. You need some programming and you need some courses. But mostly, you need time and space, and let students go and solve those problems. It's the young people are the innovators. If you look at the big innovation projects in history, things like the Manhattan Project, the Human Genome Project, the Apollo project, the average age of the people on these projects is in their mid twenties. They are the problem solvers. So the main thing you need is time and space and encouragement. I think most people have this innate ability to want to solve problems and just get on with it. Actually, it's very simple. It's time and space, support, encouragement. But mostly, it's get out of the way. And there's huge resource we've got universities. We've got 40, 50,000 agile brains that want to be creative and just get on with it. So I think it's a pretty easy thing to do, actually.


MM: You've mentioned a few things and alluded to this in what we've been talking about so far. But if you could sum it all up, what does the university of the future look like to you?


SL: I think it's an environment that's increasingly focused on solutions. It's exciting. It's a really exciting place to be. It's increasingly focused on training students to solve problems in areas where they've not taken classes, because it's that ability to solve problems that's the key of the future education programs. Solving problems and taking those solutions through to society, that's innovation that's also increasingly going to be a routine and natural product of the universities. So education will be increasingly modularized and combined on and offline components, and it will continue throughout one's life and career. Probably the earlier stages of one's university career will actually be much short and more compact, before you head off into the world and continue education and training in a different way, still working with your universities. And much of the programming that's being put in place at the UC, support for innovation, support for this style of education is what's actually crucial. So universities are going to be much more dynamic with much less hierarchy and structure, and much more opportunity for younger researchers, inventors, and innovators. And it's increasingly clear that the whole university enterprise globally is undergoing a big disruption and change, and we're seeing lots of alliances between strong universities and digital cloud IT providers. So universities are not going to be stand-alone entities to the extent that they were in the past. They're going to be alliances of providers, I think globally. But some things are not going to change. What will not change is the need for labs, the need for physical infrastructure and performance spaces and so on. And the coffee shops and the places where you can meet and interact with people, that isn't going to change. I don't think. Universities have existed for over millennia and will continue to exist, I think in a different form, but I suspect we will still keep the funny hats for some time. It's a very exciting time to be in an industry undergoing major change and disruption, because it's kind of unpredictable what's actually going to happen. And it's very exciting to be at the UC where there is the potential to lead in many of these exciting areas and actually lead a lot of these new developments and become a true 21st century innovation university.


MM: This has been We Can Answer That. We've been talking to Dr. Stephen Larter, an associate vice president of research and innovation at the University of Calgary, about blowing up the current model on post-secondary education. You can subscribe to We Can Answer That on Apple, Google or Spotify, or by visiting ucalgary.ca/podcasts. Follow our social channels to see which one of our experts will be featured in our next episode, and to send us questions you'd like them to answer. We Can Answer That is a production of the University of Calgary.


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