Postsecondary reform can improve our community

This post is part of my Waterloo Region Record Community Editorial submissions, I wanted to explore how proposed postsecondary changes in Ontario could lead to many positive community improvents … if we are able to connect education to the community our ability to deliver high quality education improves greatly and we can impact town and gown relationships.

When you think about an agile or flexible sector, many won’t immediately pinpoint our public education system. But, that’s exactly what the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities is trying to instill.

Hundreds of students still sit in classrooms listening to a professor deliver a lecture, only to be herded into gymnasiums by the thousands to write final exams at the end of a semester. However, some of this may change as our university and college system undergoes a reform.

In a discussion paper, the Ontario government proposed a vision of postsecondary education where “Ontario’s colleges and universities will drive creativity, innovation, knowledge and community engagement through teaching and research “. These proposed changes will put students first by expanding learning experiences and increasing innovation within the postsecondary education sector.

Admirable thoughts for a system dedicated to developing our knowledge.

Like any other sector – public or private – our universities and colleges face a need for real transformation as economic vulnerability, increased demand and rapidly evolving technology shift individual and government priorities.  This is especially important as postsecondary education is quickly becoming a prerequisite for success win our new knowledge and creative economy.

In a recent article, Luisa D’Amato, identifies some opportunities for expansion; but misses the true impact on the education system. Instead of building upon the strengths of the discussion paper, she proposes a new associate degree leading into some the same rigid programs currently offered.

Many of the governments’ suggestions actually put students first, by proposing to make postsecondary education more relevant, more flexible and more beneficial. By modernizing our education system, it will help our economy grow, ultimately having the greatest impact on our communities.

As a community with the largest proportion of postsecondary students in Ontario, Waterloo could stand to benefit from many of the changes. Every year, Conestoga College, Wilfrid Laurier University, and the University of Waterloo bring nearly 10,000 new residents to the community. Imagine if all educational experiences were engrained in the community through more entrepreneurial and experiential learning opportunities.

Granted, some of the proposed entrepreneurial and experiential learning experiences already exist here in Waterloo, but they are not fully entrenched in the entire educational experience. Incubators and entrepreneurial opportunities can go beyond technology and business ventures. Imagine an incubator environment where community development and social change issues were tackled, all with the help of young entrepreneurial minds.

Bringing the education environment into the community will help the public appreciate postsecondary institutions’ application of knowledge to real-life situations. Not only will experiential learning put students first, but it enhances the connections between schools and their community, creating economic successes within colleges and universities cities.

A second government suggestion that would strengthen our community would be year-round learning. Currently, some of Ontario’s colleges already operate on a year found basis and the University of Waterloo operates a world-renowned co-op program. Offering year-round learning would increase choice, allow student to earn their credential sooner and strengthen community ties.

Year-round learning would also make better use of resources – student accommodations and academic building– and minimize disruptions as students leave for the summer months, only to reenter the community four months later. Adopting the year-round model would not town and gown relationships perfect, but it would go a long way in making student feel “at home” in the community and potentially eases tensions between permanent residents and students.

The ministry’s website, www.tcu.gov.on.ca, has the full discussion paper. If you have any connection to postsecondary education, read the discussion paper. I’m not saying the discussion paper is perfect and every suggestion should be implemented, but many of these changes will make postsecondary more agile, improve communities, and put the needs of students first.

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