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Why “Stand Up for Edmonton”, the Liberal Arts and 100,000 Students are Paramount to Edmonton’s Future | By Emerson Csorba

Last week, several current and former University of Alberta students came together to organize “Stand Up for Edmonton: The University of Alberta’s Place in Edmonton.” The one-day conference took place on Saturday June 22 at the Stanley A. Milner Library, with about 110 Edmontonians participating in seven panel sessions spaced throughout the day. The panels featured Edmontonians such as Ruth Kelly, Todd Babiak, Doug Goss, Brittney Le Blanc and Shawna Pandya speaking on issues such as the University of Alberta’s (in)ability to tell its stories across Edmonton, the importance of undergraduate research and innovation within the student body, and much more. Overall, the day was a resounding success, due in large part to the organizing committee, the fantastic MC-ing by Randy Boissonnault and entertaining speeches by Brad Ferguson, Doug Goss, O’Neil Outar and Stephen Mandel.

In the weeks leading up to the event, dozens of Edmontonians asked about the day’s intended outcomes. For instance, what were the concrete initiatives that would stem from such an event? How could the conference be more than a day of “preaching to the choir”? And how might conference participants be engaged in further conference-related pursuits following June 22? These are all important questions, and they are things that have been on my mind in the week following the conference. However, the most important outcome, in my mind, was ensuring that participants emerge energized following the event, understanding both the university’s current economic impacts across Alberta ($12.3 billion per year, according to a study by Tony Briggs and Jennifer Jennings) and its potential for additional contributions in years to come.

On this final point, the conference was a success. Mayor Stephen Mandel shared a fascinating speech to conclude the day, followed by a strong closing by Randy Boissonnault and conversations that spilled out into the Stanley A. Milner Centennial Theatre lobby. Of course, these questions are important, but they fail to capture why I believe “Stand Up for Edmonton” was a conference vital to Edmonton’s social, cultural and economic prosperity. Without the University of Alberta and other local institutions like NAIT and Grant MacEwan, Edmonton would be nothing. An Edmonton sans outstanding research institutions is a pretty city with a beautiful river – and that’s it. Our talented residents would justifiably leave the city for greener pastures elsewhere.

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In the week leading up to June 22, I participated in the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education conference in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Following a winter semester replete with studies and events, and a relatively packed beginning to the summer, I looked forward to the “work-vacation.” Having never been to Nova Scotia, I knew little about what to expect, apart from the opportunity to experience the Atlantic Ocean. I predicted that Sydney would be a small city with its fair share of cultural events, a city bustling with energy.

I was wrong.

Much to my dismay, Sydney’s major claim to fame was a three or four block stretch of interesting shops (and of course, access to the ocean). However, much of the city was run-down, with the entry to the city consisting of kilometres of concrete, sketchy shops and   supermarket shopping centres. The city’s two claims to fame, steel and coal industries, collapsed between the 1970s and 2001. In conversations with cab drivers, they told me that Sydney’s major economic production facilities are now call centres. I departed the minuscule Sydney airport on Friday morning with a heavy heart.

Evidently, Sydney’s population of 32,000  is only 1/30 of Edmonton’s rapidly-growing population. Moreover, Sydney’s major university is Cape Breton University, which is little in comparison to the 40,000-student schools like Grant MacEwan and the University of Alberta. However, Sydney’s inability to diversify prior to the collapse of its two major economic drivers is an important lesson for Edmonton. At the moment, Edmonton benefits significantly from two major economic sources: livestock and energy. According to the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, Edmonton’s 2011 gross domestic product (GDP) increased by 3.9%, outpacing both Calgary and Alberta. Edmonton’s GDP is approximately $56 billion, unemployment hovers around just 4% and the vast majority of post-secondary graduates from Edmonton post-secondary schools remain within the city. Still, this provides no room for comfort and complacency. In many of the EEDC CEO Brad Ferguson’s speeches, he reiterates the necessity of investing in people that consistently innovate. In his May 29 2013 keynote address at the Cold Climate Construction Conference, Ferguson said the following:

“And this really creates a decision for us here in Alberta. Are we going to stay on the curve that we are on? Or are we going to jump to the next curve? Let’s look at the Alberta economy for a minute. 60% of our GDP is based on two assumptions:

  1. That there will continue to be a demand for carbon-based energy products.
  2. That there will continue to be a demand for intensive livestock operations.

And at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Berkley … as well as in business incubators around the globe … there are some of the smartest people in the world who have made it their God given purpose to prove that both of these products are no longer needed … or at least certainly not needed in the way we produce them.”

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When we look at the University of Alberta, NAIT, Grant MacEwan, Concordia and NorQuest, we are really talking about 1/10 of Edmonton’s population. Indeed, there are over 100,000 students in Edmonton. Think about this! There are over 100,000 young, talented and creative people in Edmonton – all attending some form of post-secondary education. These people are the sources of Edmonton’s future prosperity. If they leave, Edmonton is nothing. If they remain within the city and show little creativity and a lack of entrepreneurial spirit, we will become Sydney 2.0. This is a frightening thought, and it lingers in the back of my mind, but it is something to keep on our radars. Edmonton (and more generally, Alberta) relies heavily on its outstanding education system. Though institutions like the University of Alberta should not feel entitled to consistent funding from the government, they should actively demonstrate that they produce the economic impact of several hundred Edmonton Oilers teams.

So when I think about “Stand Up for Edmonton,” I view the conference as the beginning of a community-wide discussion about the ways in which local post-secondary education makes the city what it is and what it can and will become. June 22 was only the start of this discussion. It was clear, for instance, that the University of Alberta fails at communicating its stories to the public. The highlight of my day was an exchange between Venture Publishing CEO Ruth Kelly and Story Engine Co-Founder Todd Babiak. In this exchange, Babiak was asked about how he would tell the University of Alberta story. He then opened this question to the audience. The best that the 110-person crowd could muster was “Great people!” Though the university is home to thousands of great people, this response is certainly not a game-changer for the institution. If the University of Alberta hopes to show its worth to the Government of Alberta, it needs a story as crisp and clear as “Make Something Edmonton,” which concisely highlights the foundation and vision of this great city.

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If someone were to ask me whether the University of Alberta’s students are graduating with the creativity, innovative capabilities and ambition required to propel Edmonton forward as a city, my answer would be “no.” We have plenty of work to do. The stress placed on graduating target numbers of students per year detracts from the importance of providing students with liberal arts education that emphasizes creativity, entrepreneurialism, a sense of community spirit and writing skills. The majority of students that I meet, for instance, write at a grade ten or eleven level – upon graduation. Moreover, very few students participate in undergraduate research, which is one of the University of Alberta’s most promising untapped strengths. The 300-person class sizes promote rote memorization rather than in-depth immersion in a topic. Finally, there is little encouragement from the institution for reflection. Instead, students balance multiple courses at a time – and in many cases, part-time work – which makes for little learning and augmented stress levels.

Don’t get me wrong. The University of Alberta is a strong institution. It is one of the best in Canada, and in my time as the Students’ Union Vice-President Academic, councillor of Campus Saint-Jean and The Wanderer Editor-in-Chief have met hundreds of incredibly talented peers. What I see, however, is an institution that needs to slow down. Edmonton is transforming at a remarkable pace. This is one of the best cities in the world for a person in her twenties. While I can’t speak for NAIT and Grant MacEwan, it is clear that the 100,000+ post-secondary students are only achieving 10% of their collective potential within Edmonton. This was one of the major reasons for “Stand Up for Edmonton,” and it is why these honest – and not surprisingly, uncomfortable – conversations are paramount to the city’s future.

CC photograph courtesy of Sangudo on Flickr.

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