Leading Disruption: Building Resilient Students, Universities, and Communities

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Two of the biggest economic challenges facing Canada today are talent development and business innovation. If we are to address those challenges and meet the needs of 21st Century economies and communities, the philosophy of university education needs to expand. Universities themselves, I would argue, require deep reform.

It’s time to rethink the model – something that has been done several times throughout history.

Perhaps most recently, Clark Kerr, writing in the 1960s, summed up the nature and role of the modern university as we know it today. On the cusp of the third industrial revolution, Kerr saw that knowledge had never before been so central to national prosperity. Even in the 1960s, virtually all fields were starting to require their workers to have completed advanced studies.  

As the economy came to rely upon universities for this advanced talent, and universities sought to accommodate that need, they became larger and more complex. A “multiversity”, as Kerr described it.

What Kerr described is, by and large, the still-dominant model of university education today.

As we stand on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution -- the blurring of the lines between physical, digital and biological realms - the traditional university model is at risk of disruption. The companies leading this revolution operate at the nexus of technology and communication; technology and bio-medical sciences; technology and the arts; technology and planning.

So must the workers who are at high demand. But employers are questioning our institutions’ ability to generate the kind of talent they need to fuel their organizations for 21st Century success.

Traditional universities take kids from high school, bolt even more knowledge onto them, and then – in the hope they’ve matured by graduation day – let industry sort them out as they start their careers.

But this linear process takes far too long. We need to pick up where Clark Kerr left off and innovate: create the next model of university education.

We need to improve the process of human capital development and university-industry collaboration to support Canada’s prosperity.

Instead of presuming that our students will take our raw knowledge and turn themselves into savvy, conscientious, communicative, team-oriented, entrepreneurial professionals, we need to prepare them that way.

To do that, our approach at Waterloo — a model I believe can work on a broader scale — is to wrap the student experience in three additional, integrated, enriching layers: co-operative education, entrepreneurship, and research-intensity.

Co-op experience helps students develop business skills, mature faster, and challenge their classroom knowledge in real-world contexts.

It also builds a deep institutional connection to industry, expanding the university’s role as an instrument for social and economic growth.

Through almost 19,000 co-op placements, our students earned more than $250M in the 2014-15 academic year.

The second layer our students require is entrepreneurship: through programming, incubation, and acceleration or startups.

At Waterloo, we support entrepreneurship through our Velocity program for student and alumni entrepreneurship, our regional Accelerator Centre, and UWaterloo’s Conrad Business Entrepreneurship and Technology Centre. They work together with our local tech startup partner, Communitech, to drive our regional innovation ecosystem.

That’s the supply. The demand is amazing.

Our research indicates that an enormous percentage of incoming students want to start their own businesses.

And they mean what they say: our student and alumni entrepreneurs have now attracted a quarter billion dollars in capital investment. That’s huge for our region.

The third element of 21st century education is a research focus on strategic frontier disciplines.   

This kind of approach combines talent development with entrepreneurial opportunity and cutting-edge research. It attracts uniquely motivated students.

And that is good not just for the university, it’s good for the region, the province and the country.

A few weeks ago, General Motors Canada established its 2908 innovation lab at Communitech in the Waterloo region.

The lab, as GM Canada President Steve Carlisle – a Waterloo alumnus – describes it, will emphasize disrupting the entire auto industry by expanding from auto manufacturing to “urban mobility” using infrastructure that is “electric, connected, and autonomous.”

Google is also opening a massive new facility in the Waterloo region: a 185,000 square foot space it intends to fill with hundreds of talented engineers. Many of them will be Waterloo students and alumni.

Our ability to attract that investment can be traced back to this new approach to education.  

Canada needs more such investment, and our universities can help attract it. If we encourage reform now, to build broader talent and research pipelines between universities and industry, we can secure an invaluable global advantage.

To deliver a 21st Century Education experience, and to be the places industry can turn to for meaningful, broad engagement, we need:

·      campuses with great faculty doing deeply curious and real-world relevant research;

·      specialization and scale in 4th Industrial Revolution disciplines and training;

·      programming that blends deep learning with professional experiences and entrepreneurial incentives and support systems;

·      partner employers with a vested interest in the education process; and

·      a sophisticated operational platform to ensure the system is integrated and focused on the sum of the service, not the parts.

I believe this concept needs to be a focus for Canada’s university system in the years and decades to come.

We need to build a Canada where universities and industry share robust, mutually beneficial connections; where governments put major breakthroughs within reach, as they did recently with Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing and the Advanced Manufacturing Consortium; and where talent development becomes core-to-mission for universities by adopting co-operative education and entrepreneurial opportunity across the system.

Canada can do this. Canada can lead the way in defining   university education for the 21st Century.


Feridun Hamdullahpur is the President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Waterloo

This text was adapted from President Hamdullahpur’s keynote to the Economic Club of Canada in Toronto on March 30, 2016.