People who challenge the status quo through a combination of curiosity, collaboration, and action will shape the future of our world.
These traits are the core of innovation. It is the responsibility of universities to reflect on how to amplify these aspects in our people and act to positively impact our future society. Universities that thrive in an unimaginable future will be those that embrace collaboration, take a global view of change and can foster innovation that drives economic and societal growth in new and bold ways.
It is important that we still remain committed to the principles and values that our institutions were built on, such as institutional autonomy, academic freedom, strong and impartial public governance, decisive and engaged leadership, and a commitment to diversity of people and ideas.
Core Principles to Lean On
Disruptive forces are making fundamental shifts in the socio-economic landscape. Whether it is advancements in artificial intelligence or an aging economy that is shifting from West to East, these forces are putting pressure on our global economy and way of life.
“Universities can be change makers to help define what the next twenty years will look like and there is no doubt that our institutions of higher learning will evolve during that time to be focused on impact more than ever before”.
This change in focus, however, will not come at the expense of our core principles as places of higher learning. Each institution will have its own specific core principles, but it is vital that universities do not abandon them for loss of a legacy that has allowed them to develop, educate and be home to passionate researchers. What will define thriving universities beyond these principles will be their ability to break down barriers within institutions and with the rest of the world.
Breaking Down Disciplinary, Institutional and International Barriers
Barriers limit our ability to collaborate, share ideas, and grow. The boundaries that we’ve created over decades build a sense of security and familiarity, but to thrive in a world that is becoming more complex and connected, barriers will only serve to slow universities.
There must be a willingness, institution-wide, to find ways to promote cross-disciplinary collaboration and it is important for administrators, deans, and researchers to explore the creation of mechanisms and incentives for faculty to participate in interdisciplinarity. Challenges, such as water scarcity and cybersecurity are not isolated to a single discipline. Solutions to these challenges must be inclusive and this will take a distinctive effort from researchers to connect with one another to develop breakthroughs that impact our world.
The University of Waterloo, for example has taken this route with the establishment of the Water Institute that brings together more than 150 faculty members and 300 graduate students from all six University of Waterloo Faculties. Water is a complex issue and the solutions will require a multi-dimensional approach from biology to environment science and economics. The future will be driven by interdisciplinary approaches like these.
We will need to be a lot more connected with one another around the world, both between universities and with industry. Universities can bridge global borders and bring their students and researchers to other institutions through exchanges and mutually beneficial research agreements that nurture breakthroughs. The same can be done with businesses of all sizes looking to work with centres of research excellence by funding research on topics, such as the impact of climate change on the insurance industry, like that of the Intact Centre for Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo.
Universities in North America will also see an increasing need in the next decades to look beyond their own national borders for partnerships with institutions and organizations abroad. Talent is not isolated to a single institution, country, or continent. Neither are the vital resources limited to any one area.
We must offer our students and researchers the platform to look beyond our borders and build a global perspective. Technology of all kinds means our future is increasingly global and the institutions, students, researchers and alumni who recognize this will shape the future.
Growth of Experiential Education and Work Integrated Learning
Exceptional talent will also be those exposed to experiential education by their universities. The benefits for learning and institutional development are immense. Work integrated learning, co-operative education – really any and all kinds of experiential education – provide students with the ability to apply their in-class education to real-world situations and then take those on-the-job experiences and bring them back to the university.
How we prepare our students to prosper and contribute to our society will define the future of higher education. There are no restrictions on when that contribution begins. Students who take part in co-op at the University of Waterloo graduate with two years of work experience in their field and the intangible skills one can only learn on the job. Universities who embrace experiential education and are able to incorporate the infrastructure and partnerships needed for it to thrive will see an acceleration in learning by their students and their ability to hit the ground running day one after graduation.
One of the most important aspects in the establishment of experiential education is developing a wide range of industry partnerships and collaboration. Making a thriving co-op program a reality takes mutually beneficial relationships with businesses and organizations who need exceptional talent. Those employing our graduates and assist in our ability to foster and fund world-changing research will define the future of universities in North America.
Institutions that prosper will be those willing to seize the opportunities to partner or be left on the other side of impactful innovation, whether it’s through research partnerships that fund our ground breaking researchers or partnerships that help take our innovations to market through commercialization.
We will gauge our future success by our ability to effectively educate the next generations of leaders and the lives we will impact through the innovations borne from our researchers’ curiosity. The opportunities will be there and we cannot be afraid to lead the way.
Feridun Hamdullahpur has been an engineer, educator and leader over the span of his more than 35-year career in research and higher education. Dr. Hamdullahpur has served as the sixth President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Waterloo since 2010. Throughout his career, Dr. Hamdullahpur has been a researcher, passionate teacher and an academic administrator. His current focus at the University of Waterloo is expanding its lead in innovation, building on Waterloo’s strengths in co-operative education, research, entrepreneurship and equity. The President is also Chair of the Leadership Council for Digital Infrastructure, Chair of the Waterloo Global Science Initiative and one of ten global university presidents named a United Nations HeForShe IMPACT 10x10x10 champion in the cause of gender equity. In acknowledgement of President Hamdullahpur’s leadership in education and innovation, he was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.