What I wish politicians knew about universities

Our once-every-four-years practice of electoral democracy is a good moment to reflect on what we expect and hope for in the people’s representatives. At time of writing, it seems unlikely that higher education will figure much in the current federal campaign. No doubt the candidates will focus on large issues like the economy, the environment and health care. But higher education is a significant part of long-term solutions regarding those three issues and many others.

So here is the one thing I most wish elected representatives to know: simply, that universities have important and positive community-level impacts.

We can view impacts at many levels. At a macro level, there are correlations between the strength of the postsecondary sector and the prosperity and developmental indicators of countries. To say universities benefit Canada is true but abstract.

Much more compelling is to illustrate benefits to individuals. At the micro level, it is clear and compelling that universities change lives. Graduates are measurably happier, healthier and wealthier — benefits far beyond the costs of obtaining higher education. This is true for me personally. I have spoken at convocation about the transformative impact of university for my mother, who used correspondence classes and her Second World War veteran’s benefit to become a first-in-family university graduate.

But there is also a problem with the micro level of analysis. Stressing the benefits to individuals tends to take the policy out of education. If it is all about individuals, why should governments (or universities) plan? Why should they subsidize individuals who study? Why should they care about those who do not participate? Isn’t it just a market like any other, and shouldn’t we let the active consumers dictate the programs and pay for what they want? There is something to this view, and Canada has drifted some distance in this direction. Students now pay most of the operating costs of my university, which would be more accurately described as publicly assisted rather than as a primarily publicly funded institution.

Understanding university impact through the "meso" level

When seeking to understand complex systems, which universities are, it is often helpful to adopt a "meso" or medium level of understanding: kind of like a bird’s-eye view rather than a view from 40,000 feet or under a microscope. The best place to see and understand what a university does is within a community or a small region.

Part of the impact of a university is economic, and I intend to write about that in a future blog. For now, I’m thinking of three community-level impacts in particular.

First, universities cause their regions to become more diverse and more inclusive, due to commitments like internationalization, intercultural understanding, and reconciliation that are central to the mission of higher education. Universities’ own employees and students are diverse and interculturally engaged, but universities also attract mobile professionals and others who want to live in a region with a university nearby.

Second, universities energise culture. Faculty, staff, students, and alumni become involved in the community. They can be found on boards, they organize events, they provide and participate in cultural enterprises and cultural services of all kinds, from art to literacy to music and community newsletters and more.

Third, universities contribute to innovation. The word innovation is often used to denote business or product improvements that spread and generate business success, e.g. a new widget or a new way of producing widgets. The term social innovation is also interesting: changes in organizational practice, services, or behaviours that spread and generate community success. An example would be a new form of social housing. Universities contribute to both kinds of innovation. Graduates are more likely to have the skills and knowledge to recognize an innovation and contribute to its diffusion. And universities create connections among different areas of knowledge and between academics and businesses or organizations — pathways along which ideas can spread. By populating a region with graduates, and creating connections among them and with communities, universities provide an infrastructure for innovation.

In short — and in addition to economic and financial impacts — universities make regions more inclusive, more vibrant, and more innovative. That’s what I would like elected leaders to keep top of mind and convey when they talk about higher education.

There is a flip side, and that is that universities should own and better embrace our relationships with communities. That is a subject for another time.

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