HEQCO – the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario – held its annual conference this week, downtown at Toronto’s grand old lady, the Royal York Hotel. Some 400 people from the college and university worlds, along with a smattering of educational and social development organizations and stakeholders from business and government attended.

The theme this year was ‘Transitions: learning across borders, sectors and silos.’ In practice, the focus was primarily on the transitions from school to post-secondary education, and from education to work, with some attention along the way to particular groups – First Nations, for instance – and special circumstances, such as meeting the needs of scattered Northern or francophone communities.

Aimed primarily at practitioners, the conference was long on description – stories from the field, ‘what we do and how we do it’ – and short on analysis – ‘what is actually going on here? how do we explain it?’ Some attempt to frame the issues, and to set up the debate – conceptually, theoretically, socio-politically – would have been helpful in raising the overall level of discussion.

What do we mean, for instance, by employable skills? What should be the role of education in preparing people for the world of work? These are not merely practical and operational questions, but questions that go to the heart of our understanding of society and the economy, and the place of education and human development within these.

Needless to say, there are many different ways of thinking about these issues, and a range of theoretical, political and ideological positions that can be taken. Pretending otherwise, or failing to recognize our assumptions, limits both our understanding of what we are doing and our sense of the possibilities.

There were some excellent breakaway sessions, nonetheless, constructed around a series of parallel panel discussions, and a couple of good keynote addresses. For this participant the highlight, undoubtedly, was the closing plenary, chaired by HEQCO’s Harvey Weingarten. Sheldon Levy, former President of Ryerson and now Deputy Minister at the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, Duff Montgomerie from the Ministry of Labour and Advanced Education in Nova Scotia, and Indira Samarasekera, President of the University of Alberta, were the three panellists.

The message, from all three, was refreshingly clear and bracing: the disruption of traditional models and assumptions about the nature, provision, and credentialing of higher learning looms ever closer; higher education needs to change; leaders need to step up; and to meet the challenges of the future, higher education and governments will need to find new ways of working together.

 

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