Recapping the Opening Wanderer-SNAPP Higher Education Debate | By Erica Woolf

Wednesday evening, professors, deans, and students from a variety of backgrounds and faculties met for the first of The Wanderer – SNAPP University of Alberta Higher Education Debates. The debate sought to begin a critical discussion surrounding issues of higher education in Alberta in context of the recent budget cuts handed down by the provincial government and their impending consequences. Panellists were asked to respond to the statement: “Be it resolved that preparing students for employment is the main aim of higher education” and were asked a series of questions surrounding the importance of higher education in terms of economic, societal and intrinsic value.

Panellists included Dr. Jonathan Schaeffer, Dean of the Faculty of Science; Dr. Joseph Doucet, Dean of the School of Business; Nisha Patel, undergraduate student in Business and president of the Debate Society; Dr. Nathalie Kermoal, former Dean of the Faculty of Native Studies; Dr. Donna Wilson, Professor and President of the Association of Academic Staff; and Dr. Hanne Ostergaard, professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology.

Opening statements from each outlined the importance of university education in shaping the leaders of tomorrow, equipping students with a wide variety of flexible, lifelong skills, and providing society with critical thinkers and innovators. None, however, denied that employability should be left off the table, nor that it has been. Dr. Wilson emphasized that “people with university degrees are working much longer and earning more.”

All panellists agreed that the university education provides students with the unique skill-set that lasts through the changing professions and times, and helps them be successful in any field they choose. Dr. Schaeffer’s statement that the university should “provide skills for students to do whatever they want to pursue, in other words, learn how to learn” aptly summarizes this sentiment. Also, Dr. Doucet, the dean of the School of Business, emphasized that “very few employers talk about narrow employment skills … they talk about critical thinking,” making the point that the Bachelor of Commerce programs aim to produce students who have more than technical skills.

Sentiments regarding higher education began to heat up when talks transitioned to specific implications the budget cuts may have, and included a critique of the government’s handling of university affairs. On the topic of strategic, market-driven research, Dr. Schaeffer was a strong advocate for curiosity-driven research, noting that “we shouldn’t be talking about today… we should be talking about tomorrow”. Dr. Kermoal as well, noted that “we should not have to justify higher education” in this province, and that these cuts require just that. It became clear that the stress all panellists placed on higher education is one of vital importance to the future, and that whatever the implications of these cuts, the effects will indeed reach into the future and beyond the university community. Rightfully then, did most panellists agree that cuts to higher education deserved not only the attention of all students, professors and administrators, but all Albertan citizens and business leaders, who have an important stake in issues of higher education as well.

At the same time, panellists also admitted that members of the university have not been successful in clearly communicating the value of higher education to those outside campus. Dr. Schaeffer bemoaned the lack of “entrepreneurial spirit” in U of A students, which in the U.S. allowed university students to demonstrate the value of their higher education through success stories.

Most surprisingly, however, when asked the simple question “What do we do?” panellists were slow to respond. It was unanimous that something, instead of nothing, needed to happen, but just what that should be was unclear. Deans were nonetheless candid in admitting that quick action is not the solution, where the departments themselves were still unsure about what exactly would need to be reduced, and to what extent. Dr. Schaeffer did clarify that from his own understanding, the speculation of 20% cuts to operating budgets was at this time a “thought experiment” so that departments could essentially prepare for the worst, and was not a guarantee that this reduction is concrete. However, most panellists also noted that cuts would be inevitable, and that changes would be coming. As Dr. Doucet noted “there will be no easy decisions”.

What is certain however, is that open and critical discussion surrounding the changes and the true value of higher education in our province is a first step towards developing a well thought-out plan of action. Such discussion are important tools to engage and inform all varieties of stakeholders, and develop plans and ideas that address a variety of concerns and opinions. These debates are designed to explore options, thoughts, and facts, and any and all interested individuals are encouraged to get involved. The debate series will be continuing this Friday, where the discussion will continue and more thoughts and ideas will be explored.

The Wanderer – SNAPP UAlberta Higher Education Debates will be continuing this Friday, in ETLC E1 003 from 6:30-8:00 pm

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