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Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Can we afford ivory towers?

by Andrew Gow

Three things everyone should know about the value of universities to society:

1. Universities provide extraordinary value for money, regularly putting top researchers in undergraduate classrooms and charging less than half of what comparable American research universities collect in tuition fees.

2. Universities provide tangible economic benefits by creating jobs and contributing directly to the economic development of their surrounding communities, provinces, and neighbours.

3. Universities are necessary to educate tomorrow’s leaders.

Three misconceptions about the value of universities to society:

Myth #1:  "Tuition fees and professor salaries are out of control." 

The reality: Canadian fees are much lower than at comparable US and UK institutions, and both fees and salaries are pretty much the same in Alberta as in the rest of Canada.  Students get great value for their money and so do taxpayers.  

Myth #2: "University graduates are flipping burgers." 

The reality:  University of Alberta graduates, for instance, have created 1.5 million jobs world-wide, almost 400,000 of them in Alberta. One in five Albertans is employed by a company founded by a UofA graduate. The over 70,000 organizations founded by UofA alumni generate annual revenues of $348.5 billion.

Myth #3:  "Post-secondary students should be taught by 'full-time teachers' in ‘teaching colleges’, not by university researchers." 

The reality:  That might be true at the first-year or even second-year level, and there are certainly efficiencies that we could find, perhaps using MOOCs, but senior undergraduates and graduate students learn to do independent and original work only when they are taught by active researchers.  My 20 years of experience teaching students how to work independently gives me an insight based not on statistics, but on direct observation: my former students don't go out and get jobs; they go out and start careers, either by joining private, governmental or non-profit agencies (my former undergrads who majored in history work at Fortis, in various ministries, the UofA and the Department of Foreign Affairs, to name a few), or they go to graduate or professional schools to become lawyers, physicians (yes!), accountants, speech therapists, writers, entrepreneurs – and then they go on to lead in those fields, because they have the skills to think, research, write and work independently. Active, independent, university-based researchers are the best role models to lead students to work actively and independently, and to educate them so that they can do so.

To continue the conversation about the state of academia in Canada today,
visit Dr. Brenda O'Neill’s discussion – “What is academic freedom?”.

 Dr. Andrew Gow is Professor of History and Director of Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. Raised a civil service brat in Montreal and Ottawa, he decided to pursue public service in a different venue, and studied at Carleton, Freiburg (Germany), the University of Toronto and the University of Arizona before joining the UofA in 1993. He has published extensively on Christian-Jewish relations, witches and witch-hunting, medieval world maps, and German Bibles before Luther, and taught many thousands of students.

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