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UVic poised to meet the challenge of change

By Dr. James C. McDavid, Dean, Faculty of Human & Social Development

For the second consecutive year, the University of Victoria has been ranked as Canada's top comprehensive university by Maclean's magazine. This is a significant accomplishment, and we can take pride in being so recognized. In an environment that is increasingly competitive, reputation matters, and we should enjoy the benefits of being "number one" again this year.

I would like to speak about our future as a university, given the important changes that are and will be occurring in our province and our country.

This is the first of three years in which federal transfer payments to the provinces for health, education and social services will be reduced. In BC, these reductions will mean that funding for universities and colleges will likely be reduced. Elsewhere in Canada, funding for universities has been cut dramatically, resulting in budgets that have shrunk even as governments expect the same number or increasing numbers of students to be served.

The place of universities in our society is changing as society changes around us. Universities have existed since the Middle Ages and can trace their roots further back than that. But never in human history have so many changes occurred in so short a period of time. Many of those changes can be traced to ideas that were born in universities--now universities themselves are being challenged by those ideas. Universities are increasingly expected to operate as corporate bodies, to exhibit the flexibility and responsiveness to changes in our society that we expect from government organizations and private companies.

Increasingly, universities are being looked on as principal means of preparing students for jobs--jobs that will be transformed many times over a worker's career. We are expected to educate but increasingly to do so in ways that meet the needs of students who want work when they graduate and employers who expect students to be ready to work when they are hired.

We are increasingly expected to respond to the challenges of technologies and to build information technologies into our teaching. Digital media (computing, video, audio) are, or will be, an expectation in our course offerings--students will need to master these media to work, and we as faculty will need to master them to teach.

Our students are changing. Increasingly, they will want to continue their jobs while attending university. More will want to continue living where they work and have the university come to them. Our students will be more demanding. They will be paying a higher proportion of their education costs as tuition fees. The stakes are higher for them--jobs are harder to find and grades matter more as many plan to go to graduate school. In sum, they will want more say in their education--in the kinds of courses taught, the way they are taught, and where they are taught.

How will UVic respond to these changes?

First, we are a young institution, and our relative youth is an important advantage as we make choices in response to change. We can expect to benefit from agility that will elude older, more mature universities.

Second, the combination of fiscal pressures, demands that we prepare our students for technology-rich and changing jobs, and the increasing diversity of our students mean that we are going to have to work smarter--doing the things that are essential to high quality teaching and research, and doing less of the things that take time but are less directly related to our mission.

We have grown in size to a point where we have 17,000 students--UVic is a complex institution, but many of our current administrative and governance practices reflect our origins more than our current stature. Our collegial structure has and will continue to be an essential part of our culture, but it will need to be balanced by structures and processes that give us the capacity to function as a corporate body, to react quickly, and to take advantage of emerging opportunities.

Third, we have been fortunate in that a large number of our faculty have been hired recently--roughly 170 new positions in the last seven years. These people will help us to meet the challenges we face. They will bring ideas and innovations into our university that will be essential as we move forward.

We are at an important point in our history as a university. We have grown to become the leading comprehensive university in Canada--both our research and our teaching distinguish us nationally. Our challenge, fundamentally, is to continue to find ways of serving society by taking the long view while meeting societal expectations that we be accountable for our support, and student expectations that their education prepares them for work and prepares them for lives that will change more than ours ever will.

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