Discussion on Leadership and Higher Education

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Toronto, Ontario, Friday, April 5, 2013


Thank you for inviting me to be here today for this important discussion. I am delighted to be among so many friends and familiar faces, and to hear your ideas and insights on post-secondary learning in Canada.

As you know, it is a subject that has always been dear to my heart.

I would like to mention two old friends in particular before I offer closing remarks today: Principal Munroe-Blum and President Naylor—or Heather and David, as we know them!

Later this year, both Heather and David will be leaving their respective positions at McGill and the University of Toronto. I know how proud they have been to serve the cause of higher learning at this critical moment in our history, and I know how much U of T and McGill have benefitted from their leadership, their vision, and their intellectual courage and curiosity.

Simply put, they are two of the great educators of our time, and I ask that all of you join me in thanking and congratulating David and Heather on their remarkable tenures.

I wish you both the very best.

These truly are extraordinary times for educators. We are living in the midst of a revolution in digital communications, which is enabling us to gather, store and share information to an extent never before imagined. More precisely, it is estimated that we now generate and store online 2.5 exabytes of computer data every day.

That means that every two days, we’re uploading more data than has been printed in all of human history!

As a result, it is also estimated that, over the course of the next 40 years, science will create more knowledge than has been created in the history of our species!

The mind boggles at the pace of learning, and at the challenge this poses to educators and to learning institutions.    

Let us remind ourselves, however, that our goal ultimately remains the same: to apply our knowledge and our wisdom to improve the human condition.

As governor general, I have presented this challenge to all Canadians in the form of a call to service that envisions the creation of a smarter, more caring nation as we approach the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.

I would like to share with you five global drivers of change identified recently by Kevin Lynch, former clerk of the Privy Council and current vice-chair of BMO Financial Group: (1) pervasive globalization; (2) global competitiveness and the innovation imperative; (3) a hyper-connected world; (4) major demographic shifts; and (5) a decline in public trust in leadership.

Now in light of these drivers of change, let me list some equivalent trends in the realm of learning and higher education:

(1) as a result of globalization, we see the growing internationalization of learning (e.g., the Canada-Brazil Sciences Without Borders program, which will see 12 000 Brazilian students come to Canada);

(2) through research and innovation, we are seeing great advances in the science of learning (i.e., we are developing a better understanding of how the brain learns);

(3) our hyper-connected world is enabling the rise of online learning (e.g., as seen by the appearance of massively online open courses, or MOOCs, offered by post-secondary institutions);

(4) major demographic shifts are contributing to the growing need to match skills to learning (i.e., resulting in persistently high youth unemployment and skilled labour shortages); and

(5) the decline of trust is manifesting itself in education partly as a decline in deference, which is seeing the role of the teacher evolve from that of “sage” to that of an “enabler.” At the same time, students today demand a greater say in their own education.

As today’s discussion indicates, these trends are having profound impacts on post-secondary education in Canada, just as the developments that give rise to them are transforming the world at large.

And as leading educators in Canada, we know that this is where both our opportunity and our challenge reside.

This is where learning and innovation intersect. In a very real sense, the future vitality of this country hinges upon our ability to rise to the challenges and to seize the opportunities afforded by these changes.

I already mentioned that our ultimate goal—to improve the human condition—remains unchanged. Let me also suggest that our commitment as Canadians to equality of opportunity and to excellence must also remain firmly in mind.

Simply put, we need both, if we are to claim a truly smart and caring society in the 21st century.

In this society, we desire equality of opportunity that allows every student to succeed to the best of their abilities, according to their hopes and dreams.

And we also require excellence, in which Canadian students, researchers and learning institutions exceed themselves and consistently rank among the world’s very best.

It is not an “either/or” situation, but rather a “both/and.” Equality and excellence: these twin strengths of our learning can and must reinforce each other through the careful and considered application of effort and resources.

As leaders of some of Canada’s most precious learning institutions that bring together many of our country’s brightest minds, I know we are equal to the challenge.

Let me leave you with two lines of my favourite poem from George Bernard Shaw: “Some people see things as they are and wonder ‘Why?’ We dream of things that ought to be and ask, ‘Why not?’”