This June, more than 12,000 students are graduating from the University of Toronto in 24 separate ceremonies. It’s a joyous time of year. And seeing all those talented students cross the stage, eager to make their mark on the world, is a wonderful affirmation of the evergreen purpose of higher education.
The cycle of education and aspiration may be timeless, but our students are inheriting a world in transition at an unprecedented pace. Global economic competition and collaboration are both intensifying. The next generation will also be facing, among other challenges, the ongoing effects of climate change, stunning shifts in the political landscape and economic influence of nations and regions, and a relentless multinational quest for sustainable energy sources and raw materials.
This fast-evolving situation helps explain why the University of Toronto is working harder than ever to nurture innovation and creativity in all our students, and why we are also trying to give our students a level of global fluency that was unthinkable – and arguably unnecessary – 20 or 30 years ago.
New issues are reshaping the university’s research landscape as well. Throughout U of T’s history, dedicated and talented faculty members have always responded to important challenges facing humanity and, in many cases, discovered practical solutions. Today, however, the problems are more complex than ever. They require concerted effort by people who are able to think creatively and critically across subject areas and work collaboratively with colleagues from other cultures, both in Canada and around the world.
In response, we have been recruiting more international students and faculty to U of T, and creating a greater number of small-learning communities that allow for more direct interaction among students and faculty and more informal inter-disciplinary and cross-cultural exchanges. Looking ahead, we expect to expand the number of international study and research opportunities for both undergraduates and graduates alike. We are also providing more opportunities for undergraduates to conduct original research and to pursue topics, such as bioengineering or digital humanities or quantum information processing, that blur the boundaries between traditional disciplines.
These boundary-crossing initiatives will expand in the years ahead. U of T has identified several exciting areas of research where we hope to make strategic investments: early human development (featured in this issue of U of T Magazine), biopharmaceuticals and nanotechnology, to name a few.
To safeguard standards, we ground trans-disciplinary creativity in excellence across the full spectrum of disciplines. For example, the QS agency very recently surveyed thousands of professors worldwide to rank university performance by subject. U of T was not only in the top 15 globally in medicine, psychology, biological sciences, engineering and computer science. The university did similarly well in English, modern languages, history, philosophy, and linguistics.
These results are reassuring, but the university can’t be complacent. Competition for the best faculty and students – and for financial resources – is intensifying as the market for knowledge goes global. Powerful, emerging economies such as China and India are investing heavily in postsecondary education. China alone has some 20 million university and college students.
Unfortunately, with Canadian governments fighting deficits and trying to reduce debt, universities and colleges across Canada are relying increasingly on tuitions and private support. (It may surprise some to hear that provincial grants now cover just 40 per cent of the university’s annual operating budget, down from 70 per cent two decades ago.) U of T fares remarkably well compared to its international peers on a fraction of the resources, but this disadvantage is persisting and threatens to grow worse. Since 2000, a dozen universities, all from the U.S., have mounted fundraising campaigns of $3 billion or more.
We cannot afford to fall behind. Higher education and advanced research in today’s world has a massive impact that extends into every other field of human endeavor. And Canada must have universities that can do two related things: conduct the advanced research that will help surmount the grand challenges that humanity now faces, and offer the best and brightest students an education that will help them build a more successful nation and a better world. No university in Canada is better positioned to meet those objectives. In future columns, I look forward to sharing more details about how U of T intends to fulfill its leadership responsibilities.