A call for collaboration

President of Universities Canada challenges universities, business leaders, communities to strengthen relationships

The potential for collaboration among universities, businesses and communities toward building a stronger Canada was revealed at a luncheon hosted by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce’s Human Resource Leadership Council last week.

The event was held at the Fort Garry Hotel Nov. 3, with the keynote speech delivered by Universities Canada president and CEO Paul Davidson. He spoke passionately about the increasing demand for sophisticated skills, new knowledge in the global marketplace, and harnessing the resources in universities for better business results.

Over the past 25 years, Davidson played active leadership roles in government and both the the private and voluntary sectors before assuming leadership of Universities Canada, formerly the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, in May 2009.

Since then, Canada’s university sector has experienced significant investments in university research funding, increased resources for campus internationalization, and increased awareness of the need to improve Aboriginal Canadians’ access to post-secondary education, according to an online profile.

In his address, Davidson spoke of the ongoing measures taken by Canadian universities aimed at breaking the barriers between post-secondary education and Aboriginal communities, citing a success story recorded at the University of Winnipeg.

“Canada’s universities have over 350 collaborations with indigenous communities across the country and these partnerships are working,” he said. “For example, starting from next fall, all students in the University of Winnipeg will be required to take a course focused on the rights, traditions and history, and governance of indigenous culture in undergraduate [studies].”

He noted the University of Winnipeg’s Wii Chiiwaakanak Learning Centre – hailed as a bridge between the university and the Aboriginal and inner-city communities – is used by more than 1,700 members each month. The centre offers free educational and cultural after-school and summer programs and open access to computers.

“We can do more,” said Davidson, “because today fewer than 10 per cent of indigenous people between the ages of 24 and 64 have a university degree.”

He also made a call to employers to increase their capacities and heighten their intake of students for internship and co-op placements.

“Every year we have students looking for opportunities for co-ops, interns, or to do some form of community service plan, the bottom line is that we need employers to step up,” he said, adding that in a bid to save the future of Canada’s economy there is a need for students to gain international experience, especially from fast-growing economies.

“Our business survey shows that two out of three employers in Canada believe that the country is in danger of being left behind, left behind by fast-growing economies like China, India, and Brazil and less Canadians [are learning] to think and act more globally,” he said. “How can they do that? For starters, by getting on an airplane.”

Davidson noted that while Canadian universities offer exchange programs, global internships, and other opportunities for international experience, only a little more than three per cent of undergraduate students study abroad.

“Those that do go tend to go to the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Australia – the safe countries,” he said. “They don’t have to leave their comfort zone or even learn a different language, very few go to high-growth emerging countries such as China, India and Brazil.”

He highlighted the strides taken by Canadian universities to stimulate the mobility of students across provinces and international borders and noted a 2012 strategy developed between university and business leaders aimed at sending 50,000 students abroad.

“Canadian universities are working together to make it easier for students to know Canada and to know the world,” he said. “Canadian universities are looking at making credit transfers smoother, they are working on faculties to encourage students to boost their international experience and to provide financial assistance to students.”

Critical of the state of research funding available to universities, Davidson told the Manitoban about the new generation of excellent researchers in universities and the contrasting decline in the government’s commitment to research funding.

“The previous government did a couple of things that helped the research environment but, overall, funding levels as a percentage of our GDP have declined,” he said. “Overall funding, vis-a-vis the rate of inflation, has declined […] We have got a generation of researchers that are in full flight with great facilities and we have an opportunity to do so much more.”