May 10th, 2013
Allan Rock rocks. He did, at least, this week in a speech to the Canadian Club in Ottawa: “The ‘Skills Mismatch’ and the Myth of the Irrelevant University.” I love it when university presidents speak their minds. In my view they just don’t do it enough. A former Federal Liberal Cabinet member, Rock has a natural aversion to this present government’s approach to supporting higher education, and so you have to start with that, sure. But he took the opportunity to speak boldly and honestly to a group of Canadian mandarins about representation and misrepresentation of academia, putting the case squarely before their hooded eyes.
Rock focused on all the bad ink over the value of an undergraduate education, but his defense extends to university education at every level. He listed the central themes of complaint: professors are fusty and out of touch with the Real World; anything but a job in an applied area is worthless and leads to unemployment; the arts and Humanities are especially vulnerable because they have nothing practical to offer today’s student; colleges do a better job of training students for that Real World. We’ve heard and I have written about some of this stuff before. It’s astonishing that we still need to challenge these clichés, but we do.
I won’t rehearse his whole speech. It’s widely available now. I just wish we had more of this kind of high-level talk in the public sphere. He is in good company down south, at least. This week the former president of the Us National Endowment of the Humanities, Jim Leach, spoke to the same topic, arguing that more than ever we need the humanities to help us prevent the annihilation of the planet, which we seem, for the first time, to have finally figured out how to do. If we lose the humanities, he argued, we lose the ability lead the world. Not sure who the we is but I take it to be the human race, period, and not just Americans.
One excuse for Canadian university presidents not being vocal enough about what we’re all facing is that we have no national education policy, no unifying national vision of higher education whatsoever. Presidents are focused on their provincial structures and not on the national big picture, and therefore they keep their audiences small and their interests in line with their provincial government mandates. As University of Alberta Provost Carl Amrhein also said this week, this national policy lack really undermines our ability to recruit and compete internationally. We have, for example, a strong sense of how Australia, the UK, and China are investing—or not—in higher ed, but ask anyone out there what Canada is doing and you’ll draw a blank. We see this when we attend international conferences and recruitment fares, where provincial universities are competing against each other. We are in no position to present ourselves as a Canada brand, that’s for sure.
Anyhow, the point is that when a Canadian university president pulls a few things together and takes the pulse of trends in higher education, and the myths and false narratives that attend to it, it’s news. Not exactly man bites dog news, but news.