*Forum On Post-Secondary Education – The AU Perspective

March 26, 2003

For full coverage of the First National Forum on Post-Secondary Education, read last week’s Voice: http://www.ausu.org/voice/articles/articledisplay.php?ART=486

On March 11 to March 14, 2003, the Student Union of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg hosted the first Nation Forum on Post-Secondary education. Judith Hughes of AU and Sandra Moore of AUSU attended the forum on behalf of AU students. Sandra’s report continues this week.

Following Diane McGifford, the discussion of the Changing Delivery of Education continued with a presentation by Dr. Judith Hughes, Vice-President of External Relations for Athabasca University.

Now as an AU student, I’m not sucking up with central administration by stating that Dr. Hughes’ presentation was by far the best of the forum; she was the first to use a Power Point presentation! She opened by explaining that she would not be talking about the brick and mortar of our university but instead talking about the students of AU. She gave statistics showing that 2/3 of AU undergrad students are female, the MBA program is dominated primarily by men while the MAIS is dominated primarily by females and that the undergrad program is comprised of 50% Albertans, while Ontarians make up over half of the grad students. She made an excellent comment about AU’s views toward students “as academics; it isn’t about us it’s about the learning,” she continued. “Everyone is responsible: students, administration, etc:”

Students should have more of a say in their education, according to Hughes. Why? Because they are making a great investment in their education; because people go through 4-5 career shifts in their lifetimes, making lifelong learning a priority; because students know their learning styles – they know how they learn best; and finally because it is a student’s basic right to be involved in their education. Education is about access of choice; there is no real access if there isn’t choice. Dr. Hughes also pointed out to the delegates that the student satisfaction rate at AU is immense.

Dr. Hughes continued on and gave the delegates some information about the newly formed University of the Arctic. She explained how this school delivers a program pertinent to citizens of the North: a B.A. in Circumpolar Studies. Learning is no longer isolated to classrooms. Technology has made it possible for even the remotest of students to obtain an education. Dr. Hughes asked the question – “What will the new Educational Environment look like?” She believes it will involve learning based on resources, a partnership with student unions, individualized culture, flexibility and mobility, more choice and collaboration, cross cultural environments, various entry points to learning, well trained staff, digital reading rooms, and continuous feedback loops.

After Judith’s speech, many of the delegates inquired with me about AU. A lot of people still believe that AU is the university that sends you the card in the mail where you choose a career, mark off a reply card and get your degree a year later. On the other hand, many people are impressed with how much self-motivation and dedication it must take to be able to complete courses this way. Dr. Hughes mentioned in her presentation that distance learning is not for everyone, and I tried to reiterate this to the delegates since many were concerned that distance education would one day replace the traditional universities. Distance education is only an option to traditional universities, not a competition.

Before the presentations for Topic 4 started we were treated to a lunch hour presentation from national columnist Gwynne Dyer on his views of the situation in Iraq. Mr. Dyer, for those of you who don’t recognize the name, is a syndicated columnist known for his candid discussions about international affairs. He obtained a PhD in military and Middle Eastern history from the University of London and taught for a while before turning into a journalist and lecturer. Mr. Dyer’s passion-filled speech educated the delegates about the other side of war, the one we never hear about, and the other side of the American President George W. Bush’s story. Mr. Dyer spoke from experience and from the heart as he answered a gamut of questions on topics ranging from the position of Britain in the upcoming war, to the role of the terrorists. If you are interested in Gwynne Dyer’s views, pick up any major newspaper.

Mr. Dyer was a tough act to follow, and unfortunately many people chose not to attend the fourth session later that afternoon.

4. Enhancing Research and Development
:: Funding Research and Development
::Market and Industry Demand
::The Different Roles of Universities and Colleges
::Matching Students with Employment
::Increasing the Benefits for Researching

The first speaker up was Thomas Brzustowski, President of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. For those of you who, like myself, don’t know about NSERC, it is Canada’s federal research granting agency that supports Canada’s university research in the natural sciences and engineering. Now to be honest with you, I have no mathematical abilities at all, and Dr. Brzustowski’s presentation was Greek to me. It was another Power Point presentation, but with a lot of equations. I tried – I really did – to follow, but the information was too far above my intelligence level. Damn, aerospace engineers!

What I did get was that the Prime Minister recently announced in his speech from the throne that he would like Canada to move from the current position of 15th to the position of 5th in the global research and development effort by 2013. It will be an expensive goal to achieve, but it will lead to a better life for Canadian people. The rumblings I heard from the delegates were that Dr. Brzustowski’s focus was on research commodities and not on human services research.

Following Dr. Brzustowski’s presentation was Dr. Digvir Jayas, Associate VP (Research) for the University of Manitoba. Once again my brain does not comprehend economics or anything else even remotely mathematical and Dr. Jayas’s thick accent had me stop trying to take notes about 4 minutes into his presentation. I was not the only one; my whole table was just as confused as I was. From what I did gather the University of Manitoba has made some prominent medical discoveries in the past few years.

The final day, Friday the 14th, covered the final topic.
5. Emerging Trends
::International Mobility
::International Standards
::Differential Fees
::Exporting Knowledge
::Importing Research

Starting off the talks was forum organizer and University of Manitoba Students’ Union President Nicholas Louizos. One of the first emerging trends that Mr. Louizos brought up was the increase in capacity. Most PSE institutions are already at their physical capacity. In order to meet the predicted demand of students wanting to obtain a PSE in the next 10 years, Canada needs to build the equivalent of an additional 10 Universities of Alberta. In addition to building these additional universities, they will need to be staffed and supplied with infrastructure. With the average Canadian faculty member being 55 years of age, what will happen in 10 years when the majority of professors reach the mandatory retirement age of 65?

The number of Masters degrees and PhD’s that Canada is producing is on a rapid decline. Qualified immigrants arriving in our countries with degrees and PhD’s must go through a rigorous retraining process and for many the expense and bother is simply not worth it. Those of you who are wondering what to do with your degree, go on to become a professor; the demand will be there shortly.

If there is not adequate capacity to hold the growing numbers of students what will happen? Entrance requirements will go up, access will be denied to some, middle class parents and university alumni will then start complaining that their children are being denied access and new political pressures will arise.

Mr. Louizos also talked about modifying student loans. Some students cannot get the necessary finances to attend school or their costs turn out to be greater than their resources and they are unable to finish school. The scrutiny involved with public student loans has prohibited some students from obtaining government loans and they are then forced to get private loans. The drawback of private loans is that they accrue interest while you go to school, and payments are also expected monthly. Considering the current average debt load for a four-year student is $21,000, we can only assume that increasing student debt will be a major emerging trend in education.

Another emerging trend brought up was international mobility. 44,000 students came to Canada in 1997/1998 to obtain their PSE; in contrast only 5,000 Canadian chose to obtain their PSE abroad. Choosing to study abroad can provide a different perspective on one’s field of study. Canadians need to be reassured that obtaining a degree in a different country will still be beneficial to them. For the many international students crossing our border to study every year a different issue is presented. Canadian Universities profit from these students by increasing tuition; they lead foreign students to believe that access is higher and the level of education is higher.

Rob South, Government Relations for the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) closed the forum by basically reiterating what a lot of the other speakers had touched on and encouraging student delegates to take back to their members the importance of making PSE a national priority!

All in all, I would say that this conference was very beneficial to students. We need to speak with one united voice toward the government in order to start making a difference. Once the summary of this forum is compiled I will post it on the AUSU website for all of you to read.

Sandra Moore is an AUSU councillor, the head of the groups and clubs committee, a mother of two, and a full time AU psychology major. Somehow she finds time to also write for The voice.

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