Canadian University Students Must be both Job-ready and Future-ready
Principal and Vice-Chancellor
McGill University is one of Canada's best-known institutions of higher learning and one of the leading universities in the world. With students coming to McGill from some 150 countries, its student body is the most internationally diverse of any research-intensive university in the country. McGill has two campuses, 11 faculties, 300 programs of study, and more than 37,500 students.
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1- The most important thing universities teach students is how to learn. Lifelong learning is a reality of a knowledge-based economy and society.
2- Although Canada has a relatively small population base, we can carve our niche in very important areas: such as the study of the brain and the intersection of natural resources and technology for increased environmental sustainability.
3- The scientific method is becoming an essential skill in many careers because of the growth in data and knowledge. Anyone interested in science should know that now is a perfect time to pursue scientific studies.
In order to create stronger partnerships between the research and innovation worlds and foster greater economic growth, we need “innovation marketplaces”; dynamic places that always remain open to new participants and new ideas.
What is the role of universities in preparing our students for success in the knowledge-based economy of the future?
Universities need to provide students a learning experience that will equip them well for the world that they are shaping. We must ignite their curiosity, nurture their creativity, hone their leadership capacity and build their risk-taking abilities. This is what they want and expect of their university experience.
Universities also play an important role in preparing Canada for success, particularly by increasing the number of skilled, educated Canadians who can thrive in the knowledge-based economy. Part of that solution involves educating Canadians, and part of it lies in looking outside Canada: we have an ageing population and a low fertility rate, so we need to attract immigrants. Fortunately, the high quality of Canadian universities draws the brightest talent from around the world. Attracting international students is an effective gateway to immigration. The most recent statistics I have seen for Quebec showed that about one-third of international students and temporary foreign workers eligible for permanent residence applied for the Quebec Certificate of Selection, which is an indication of wanting to build their careers and lives here.
What more can universities do to better prepare students for a job market in which their skills may become obsolete?
It is predicted that 10 years from now students will be doing jobs that they do not even know about right now. Preparing for change will be a constant feature of their working lives: every three years they will need to acquire new skills. Therefore, we need to offer students a learning experience that can make them both job-ready, which means graduating with the knowledge and the skills that the immediate workplace requires, and future-ready, which means graduating with a flexible mindset that embraces life-long learning.
Preparing students to be future-ready starts with a dynamic, interactive, classroom environment that is challenging, that makes them go the extra step and dive deeper. This environment should not only teach them how to learn but also make them explore their great capacity for learning. Students need to develop a great appetite for learning, as learning is a life-long endeavour. The most important thing they can learn at universities is how to learn. The university environment should prepare them for a future in which they will constantly be offered new opportunities and give them confidence in their own ability to learn and acquire new skills.
Today, universities are also giving students opportunities to work with organizations where they can learn practical skills and get work-related learning opportunities. These post-millennials are bringing a new way of doing things to the private sector and many businesses are valuing their contributions. The blend of on-campus learning and work-related learning is a good way to prepare students to be both job-ready and future-ready. For example, one of the main goals of the Business-Higher Education Roundtable (BHER), a group that brings together leaders from the private sector and the higher education sector, is to create such opportunities for every student in Canada.
What must we do to combine Canada’s strengths in research and business-led innovation in order to foster more economic growth?
We need to create dynamic and open meeting places, “innovation marketplaces,” where new ideas, new entrepreneurs and researchers are always welcomed. I am hoping that the recently announced superclusters will create such environments.
You have been the President of NSERC and a leading academic in the field of Crystallography. What challenges did you have to face as a woman in STEM and how can we encourage more women and girls to take up STEM careers?
I come from a time when there were very few women in science. Being one of a few, being different, can certainly present some difficulties and hurdles but in my personal experience for every door that closes, another one opens. As I progressed in my own career, people were starting to understand that a diversity of perspectives was important and being different, bringing another point of view, became an asset so I was given opportunities that I might not have had otherwise. While we have made progress, we still have a very low proportion of women choosing to study science, particularly in the physical sciences and engineering. Yet we know that we are facing a pressing need for talents in these areas.
This is a great time to pursue studies in science. The STEM disciplines are truly exciting; we need to do more to highlight the reward an excitement in scientific careers. I also believe that the scientific method, which is at the basis of STEM disciplines, is increasingly important in everything we do. Measurements, data analysis and research skills are becoming integral skills for many jobs today. Lastly, contrary to what is often portrayed, science is a people-oriented activity; as a scientist, you work with and have an impact on people.
Will Canada be able to overcome the economic and environmental challenges it will face in the future?
We are facing many challenges but we should never underestimate humans’ capacity to evolve, to seize opportunities, to be creative and to have compassion.
In terms of economic growth, Canada has a small population base but several important niches. A special niche for Canada is at the intersection of technology and natural resources for increased environmental sustainability. We still have much to discover about our natural resources. I am curious to see what use we will find in the future for the unique materials in our oceans. Of course, the greatest resource is the human brain and Canada is a leader in the study of the brain. This knowledge has already led to important innovations, including in AI. There is much more to come as we develop, for example, therapeutics and technological solutions for the many people facing mental health challenges. I am excited to see what comes next, as Canadian researchers across many disciplines are reimagining our physical, digital, and biological worlds.