By Susanne Martin
Managing Editor and Senior Writer
There has been a recent public debate about the value of a university degree, specifically in the liberal arts. It has been implied that a significant number of those majoring in the liberal arts better prepare themselves for landing jobs as baristas. The tenor of the debate has been that in the face of rising university prices and a not-so-robust job market, students should, rather than just following their passions, pursue careers that are in demand.
Working on the Top universities report, which we published in The Globe and Mail on June 18, 2014, I wondered how those sentiments are affecting university programming and students’ career choices. While I believe that the advice to “follow your dreams” can in some cases lead to dead-end career paths, the alternative – to choose an occupation purely based on current industry demand – could also have negative consequences.
Universities, it seems, have the task of training young professionals for the fast-evolving labour market of the future. Realizing that many of the most in-demand occupations today did not exist 10 or 20 years ago (according to a Canadian Chamber of Commerce report), educational institutions need to adapt.
As the stories in the special feature we produced show, Canada’s higher education institutions are changing to meet the needs of a new generation of students. I found it encouraging to learn that universities are not the inflexible ivory towers they are sometimes made out to be.
In an increasingly interconnected society, it makes sense to foster collaborative, cross-disciplinary approaches. Among the many topics that were brought forward for this year’s report, it was proposed we write about Concordia University’s District 3 initiative. For me, the name immediately conjured up images of the dystopian future depicted in the Hunger Games books and movies.
In the Hunger Games – known to be very popular with the younger crowd as well as dystopian fiction fans – society is divided according to areas of expertise. The main industry of District 3, for instance, is technology and its tech-savvy citizens are portrayed as poverty-stricken and rebellious. What’s the connection to the Concordia initiative? I wondered.
In my subsequent interviews with students and faculty I learned that other than the name and the fact that “district” indicates a zone, the fictional District 3 has little in common with the Concordia space.
Where the Hunger Games community is closed off and highly specialized, the university space is meant to be multi-disciplinary and open to “outsiders.” Receiving its name well ahead of the popularity wave of the Hunger Games, at Concordia the number three stands for “collaboration, entrepreneurship and innovation.” While creating a space is not that hard – it just means setting up rooms where students can hang out and brainstorm – how do you then foster the “three”?
It’s also easy, I was told. Provide the space for cross-disciplinary collaboration, add in guidance from university staff as well as industry partners, and the magic will happen.
Well, it certainly seems to work – District 3 students (two from Concordia and one from McGill) won this year’s Shell Ideas360 international competition in Amsterdam, an international competition challenging students to come up with innovative ideas to tackle energy, water and food issues.
Combining the diverse skill sets of a biology and social science graduate, a marketing student and a film student achieved an impressive result: the team designed large sail-like structures that collect dew as a water source for some of the world’s driest locations and presented them in a way that wowed the judges. In an interview, the students passionately spoke about the project and made it clear that their success stemmed from the combination of all their individual talents and contributions. And their enthusiasm was infectious.
The District 3 article is not the only inspiring story in the report, but it reassured me that universities are finding innovative ways to equip future leaders with the knowledge and tools to make a positive difference. From speaking with District 3 representatives as well as students, I found it entirely possible that collaboratively we might be able to solve problems like energy, water and food, as well as tackle other challenges. Pooling our talents and resources, we may be able to ensure that we’re not headed toward a dystopian future after all.