Opinion: Universities must evolve beyond degree factories

Students at the University of Alberta walk through the pedway between the Natural Resources Engineering Facility and the Maier Learning Centre on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019 in Edmonton. Greg Southam / 00086583A

It’s 2019, and we’re still stuck bickering about how another pipeline is crucial for Canada’s future prosperity. Talk about tunnel vision.

Regardless of what happens with the Trans Mountain pipeline, we need to recognize that the global energy economy is changing so much that it is transforming the world order. Alberta needs to rapidly reduce its economic reliance on the oil and gas sector.

I don’t pretend to have a silver-bullet solution to diversification, but I do know that our universities need to pick up some slack, modernize, and align to both society’s current and future needs.

Even at my age, 23, I’ve seen the world evolve around me more than I ever could have imagined in my youth, and the world has much more to come. Technology has become even more engrained into society. Artificial intelligence is not only going to change the nature of work but is also raising philosophical questions about humanity and our ethics.

I chose last year to pursue a master’s degree in engineering and policy analysis exactly to combine my technical skills with my humanities training and tackle these big questions — these grand and wicked challenges.

I left Alberta for the Netherlands because I needed an academic breath of fresh air.

Alberta’s universities especially need to take leadership and become breeding grounds for thoughtful, ethical, and wise graduates to tackle the world’s — and Alberta’s — biggest problems.

Instead of just teaching students theories in prescribed courses, they need to build an environment that guides students to think for themselves and equip them with skills to create new opportunities. Instead of siloing students into departments, they need to rigorously expose them to interdisciplinary-systems thinking.

Take the University of Alberta faculty of engineering, my alma mater, for example.

To this day, engineering students face workloads that are not only enormous, but restrictive. Out of the 50 or so courses needed to graduate, most programs only allow students two electives, from a curated list, and three program electives that allow them to specialize in their area of study. Everything else is pre-selected.

No wonder some students describe the system as a “degree factory.”

An MIT report on engineering education last year highlighted how programs are internationally becoming more focused on the “challenges of the 21st century — societal, environmental, and technological.” It applauded my current academic home, the Delft University of Technology, for its entrepreneurial teaching culture.

Flexibility and programs aimed at solving social issues not only make for better students, but they help to attract more women and other underrepresented groups too.

This is not to say the U of A’s engineering faculty is not making changes. In 2017, the office of the dean created a new executive position, the associate dean of outreach, who has been tasked to tackle these exact issues, and it finally allowed its students to minor in arts, business, or science. Students still struggle to partake in interdisciplinary certificate programs, like in leadership and sustainability.

In a world where so much is uncertain, our educators need to help the scientists, journalists, community workers, public servants, engineers of the future become highly adaptable, resilient, creative, and ethical so they can turn uncertainty into opportunities.

Beyond changes technology will bring, there is much to be earned by re-examining how we view the world around us. Edmontonian Mark Anielski and Oxford’s Kate Raworth are both economists who have sketched what societies might look like if they focused on human well-being rather than GDP. The World Bank is calling for governments to look past GDP and jobs too, going as far as to say that “countries do not improve their economic situation by liquidating natural capital.”

Universities cannot fix economics, but they do have the ability to empower their students to build ones that are robust and prosperous. What is required of our educators, is to take leadership and ingrain holistic social, cultural, and environmental education in all programs to protect ordinary Canadians.

Our educators can look to the world’s leading institutions for inspiration. They should work with thought leaders in civil society to identify important questions to answer. They can also simply listen to their own students, who are academically and ideologically ambitious, and eager to build a better world.

Students will be the ones left to deal with the messes left by inaction from our leaders.

Jason R. Wang is a recent graduate of the University of Alberta, and was vice-president the of Engineering Students’ Society, Students’ Union councillor, University Senator.