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May 01, 2008

The University as an Agent of Social Change - Disscussion with Dr. Abdul Kalam

On April 19th 2008, Dr. Abdul Kalam, past president of India, challenged an audience of 50 friends of the Shastri Institute to design a university that educates youth to be job creators instead of merely job fillers.

His comments were the capstone of an exciting discussion that began with presentations from Mukesh Gupta, Director of Strategic Relations, Tata Consultancy, Dr. Sheila Embleton, Vice-President Academic, York University and Dr. K. D. Srivastava, Vice-President Emeritus, University of British Columbia. Dr. Sheila Embleton has graciously provided a written copy of her presentation from that event:

Dr. Sheila Embleton, The University as an Agent of Social Change, April 19th 2008

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for inviting me to be here this morning on this special occasion of the visit of the former President of India, and allowing me to share my thoughts and reflections on the topic of the university as an agent of social change, a subject close to my heart. I am pleased to do so, both as a professor of linguistics and as a senior academic administrator in one of Canada’s more progressive universities, a university which is a major agent of social change in its own right, York University, right here in Toronto.

York University was founded in 1959, on a secular basis, in strong contradistinction to many other universities of that day. In its almost 50 years of existence, from the initial vision of its founding fathers, to the present day, it has been strongly committed to the idea of accessible university education, no matter what the religion, ethnicity, gender, or socio-economic background of the student. Let me quote to you, in its entirety, the University’s mission statement:

“The mission of York University is the pursuit, preservation and dissemination of knowledge. We promise excellence in research and teaching in pure, applied and professional fields. We test the boundaries and structures of knowledge. We cultivate the critical intellect.

York University is part of Toronto: we are dynamic, metropolitan and multi-cultural. York University is part of Canada: we encourage bilingual study, we value tolerance and diversity. York University is open to the world: we explore global concerns.

A community of faculty, students and staff committed to academic freedom, social justice, accessible education, and collegial self-governance, York University makes innovation its tradition.”

Although we are a bilingual university, you’ll be happy to know that I’m not going to now read you the entire mission statement also in French.

Let me take a moment to analyze this mission statement in just a bit more detail. The first paragraph (quick re-read) is probably not unlike what you would find at many contemporary universities, but note already the reference to testing boundaries and cultivating the critical intellect. Here you perhaps see the beginnings of what differentiates York from many – not all – other universities. The next paragraph (quick re-read) refers to our location in the most multicultural city in the world – and we are often stated to be the most multicultural university in this most multicultural city – and refers to our interest in internationalization and things global, for which we are increasingly recognized as the leader in Canada and a strong contender internationally. And it also speaks of our positive valuation of diversity. The final paragraph ( quick re-read) is the one perhaps most relevant to the topic of this panel – with its references to core values of academic freedom, social justice, and accessible education.

I am going to work from the following assumptions about those latter three core values. First, academic freedom – without it, there is no guarantee of the production of new ideas, of the testing of those ideas to see if they are sound, and therefore no guarantee of progress or advancement of any kind. Progress comes from imaginative rethinkings of paradigms and theories and received knowledge in light of data contradicting expectation – and without academic freedom and the ability to acknowledge and rethink, based on such discrepant or discordant knowledge, there can be no significant progress. Second, social justice – if we are to look for social change, there needs to be social justice, otherwise, one can of course have social change without any form of justice or the betterment of society. Third, accessible education – how can there be social justice, how can there be significant social change, if access to education and knowledge is restricted to any kind of elite, on whatever basis that elite is defined? (And I’d just note that at various points in history and in various parts of the world, that elite might have been defined on the basis of gender, or economic class, or what is variously known as social class/station in society/caste, or political affiliation, or religion, or tribe/ethnic group, or language group. A nd even into more recent days, the exclusions might have been based on marital status, sexual orientation, or a physical disability.)

Let me now turn to the role of the university and education more generally, in social change. These days, we are constantly told – by governments, by economists and policy makers, by the media, etc. – that capitalist, or post-capitalist or post-industrial as we are sometimes referred to, societies are inextricably a part of the knowledge economy, and that a critical ingredient in this new knowledge economy is investment in knowledge – which involves the communication and transfer of existing knowledge through education, the creation of new knowledge through research, and perhaps the most crucial step, the role of education in creating those minds that can create that new knowledge – by having a critical intellect, the ability to question existing/received knowledge, the ability to be creative and innovative and think outside of existing patterns and paradigms, etc. We need both education and research – the education of a highly flexible labour force possessed of very complex and transferable skills; and the conduct of basic research with benefits for innovation in technical and institutional development, and more applied research and development impacting economic productivity and competitiveness. In practice of course it is impossible and unproductive to distinguish pure (or as it’s sometimes now called, “curiosity driven”) research from applied research – one never knows when pure research has an incredibly applied, practical, and often incredibly commercially profitable result. A skilled and highly educated workforce, with a capacity to innovate continuously, is the crucial building block of a successful 21st century economy.

And this is of course where the universities and education come in. It is this very commitment to innovation and knowledge transmission and creation – that is, knowledge resulting from carefully designed, independent, research, grounded in theory, meeting high ethical standards, and subject to peer review – together with the emphasis on the fostering of analytic and communication skills, that have been fundamental to the mission of universities worldwide for many years, many centuries in fact, since the founding of universities. Traditionally the liberal arts have been seen as at the core of this kind of intellectual and skills development, in a very broadly-based approach to education. More recently, the possibilities of delivering this result but outside of the traditional liberal arts has been seen as also possible (for example, through science, the fine arts, and even perhaps business). In more recent years, however, the question is often posed as to whether we couldn’t more efficiently just deliver the courses that prepare the student for the job market and more or less cut those “frills” of courses which are about the development of critical skills, broadly based liberal arts courses (this would give fewer years in university, fewer courses required to be taught, for example). These questions are asked by governments eager to save money (to spend on health care, on reducing taxes, or more nefariously on waging war), as well as by parents and students eager to shorten the time in higher education (to save money, to get into the workforce and a wage-earning capacity more quickly, and generally to get on with what they see as “life”). Interestingly, these questions are not so often asked by larger employers, who often see the merits (at least at the more senior levels, not necessarily the front-line HR recruiters) of a flexible, critical, imaginative mind, able to solve problems, think differently, approach a problem from more than just one angle, to work in interdisciplinary teams, to present clear, well-articulated and well-documented arguments, and to constantly retrain and adapt as the needs of the company and the economy continually change, often suddenly and occasionally in quite unpredictable directions. These skills are often referred to as “soft skills”, and they are fundamentally those that allow for not only the transmission of knowledge, but also adaptability and creativity in our ever-changing environments, also encouraging a disposition or propensity towards what has come to be called “lifelong learning”. The best preparation for the job market is not job-market-training, but broad mind-broadening training, as it is applicable in a variety of changing contexts, over both shorter and longer spans of time. Although we are familiar, from Darwinian biology, with the advantages of the ability to adapt to changing contexts, the point may seem abstract and even overly philosophical when applied to education and skills, but occasionally the economy deals us stark reminders. One has only to remember the tech bubble, the dot.bomb, worldwide but exemplified here in Canada most dramatically perhaps by Nortel, where highly trained and extremely specialized technical personnel, those often most highly valued previously within the company/sector as symbolized by salary, had the toughest time finding another job, and some at least remain unemployed to this day, whereas those who were more flexible and adaptable, and more broadly trained and educated, thus with more transferable skills, had far less trouble finding alternate employment, as they had the ability to move outside the then-troubled technology sector.

Returning to the theme of this panel, then… “the university as an agent of social change”. Since education is the main driver of all social, economic, and technological change, it is obvious, even tautological, then that universities are a key agent, and I would say the key agent, of social change. It then becomes crucial to discuss who has access to this magic elixir, this magic transformative life-changing potion. Note that a university education is a strong driver of individual (and hence familial) advancement, but also that the collectivity of those educated are what can drive whole societies and economies to positive change and prosperity. It is in both these dimensions – the personal as well as the societal or collective – that we then see the benefits, indeed the absolute necessity, of access. Access to education must be made available to all who have the ability and the desire – anything less restricts both individual advancement in an arbitrary and therefore unfair manner, as well as hampering societal/collective advancement. And this is where we enter another current political debate, active here in Ontario as well as in other provinces of Canada, but perhaps even more so currently in Europe, where the transition from free (or almost free) post-secondary education to fee-paying post-secondary education (although still modest fees by our Canadian standards, and especially by US standards) is proving quite wrenching. Education must be available to all, with restrictions only according to intellectual ability, and no restrictions according to other factors – for example, gender, social status/caste, religion, ethnicity, or especially ability to pay. The public vs. private debate is less crucial, provided that access to all forms of quality education is available in an affordable way, whether that is through a public system with modest fees enabled by strong public support, or a private system which recognizes that ability to pay must not be a barrier, e.g. by a needs-blind admission policy.

In closing, then, let me stress the importance of access to education, and to an education that is broadly based, inculcating not only particular knowledge, but also the ability to think and reason and communicate, to be flexible and critical and inquiring, to see issues and problems from many angles, and to be innovative. I’d like to stress that many of these values are echoed not only by those of us within universities, but occasionally also by our more progressive politicians and leaders. For example, in introducing his “Reaching Higher” program for Ontario’s post-secondary education system a couple of years ago, and underlining the importance of education, Premier Dalton McGuinty stated (and I quote): “Where you start out in life should not determine how high you can reach” (end quote) – that speaks directly to the imperative of accessibility – and also (again I quote): “We understand that education is much more than just the transmission of information from one generation to the next. It’s the foundation for an engaged citizenry and a strong democracy. It enriches the enjoyment of our lives… And it’s essential to our economic success.” (end quote) These words were spoken about Ontario, but they are equally true of India, or indeed any other country. And those words speak powerfully to the role of universities as the key element in enabling social change, and in supporting the strong democracy that can only come from an engaged citizenry.

I thank you for your patience and attention in listening to these remarks this morning, and I look forward to further discussion throughout the morning. Thank you!

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