July 12, 2016 – Dr. Indira Samarasekara – Ripples and Waves: National competitiveness and Universities.

Indira V. Samarasekera, Ph.D., F.R.S.C, F.C.A.E., D. Sc., O.C.

Dr. Indira V. Samarasekera served as the 12th President and Vice Chancellor of the University of Alberta, from 2005-2015, one of Canada’s most respected research-intensive universities.  Dr. Samarasekera is internationally recognized as one of Canada’s leading metallurgical engineers for her groundbreaking work on process engineering of materials, especially steel processing. She has consulted widely for industry worldwide leading to the implementation of her research discoveries. Dr. Samarasekera has also devoted her career to advancing innovation in higher education and the private sector, providing national and international leadership through invited lectures and participation on national and international boards and councils. She was awarded the Order of Canada in 2002 for outstanding contributions to steel process engineering. In 2014 she was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in the US as a foreign associate, the professions highest honour.

Dr Samarasekera kindly provided a copy of her speech. To read it, click here. When you’re finished, click the “go back” arrow in the top left corner of your screen to return to the website.

She also participated in a Q&A session.

Question: Can you imagine UBC in an ideal world in 2030?

Answer: What will have to happen is current faculty based structures that are discipline based will have to be rethought to encourage a far greater participation. They’ll have to increasingly bring in top talent from elsewhere because UBC as a publicly funded university doesn’t have the resources to attract the best brains in the numbers it needs to provide students with the learning opportunities they need. UBC has to become increasingly more engaged with the developing brain hub in Vancouver. It needs to think about how it can help build the next generation of companies in this brain hub? Finally, UBC will fare well as neuroscience becomes one of the next big frontiers. It has been one of the top neuroscience centres in the world.


Question: Would you change the tenure structure in universities and the emphasis on publications as a method of gauging performance?

Answer: Tenure evolved to protect professors from being turfed for controversial ideas. That principle needs to remain. They need to have the freedom to express their ideas, whether in the sciences or humanities, without fear of reprisals from their universities or governments. The problem is that tenure has become synonymous with job security and that has to change. This can be done while preserving the best elements of tenure. The problem with publications today is that the vast majority go unread. If you look at the speed with which knowledge is being created today, the days when you had to submit a paper and wait 3 months for it to be released are gone. People are able to get their ideas out on the internet and peer reviewed much more quickly today. We still need to ensure that ideas are peer reviewed to make sure they’re valid, but the test is increasingly shifting to include impact on community and society. Increasingly, the biggest breakthroughs come from research not intended for any immediate use or direct application. These types of breakthroughs need to be protected.


Question: One area where price performance is going the wrong way is university education. Given that 280,000 people apply but don’t get accepted to the Indian Institutes of Technology, have you thought about how to deliver higher education in places that don’t have the resources to create brain hubs and small cores of privileged people? How can we develop these people?

Answer: There’s no question price performance has been going the wrong way in university education. Sadly, I think we are being forced to change from without rather than from within. Universities are facing budget cuts every year, but haven’t figured out how to get efficiencies of scale. This is a big challenge. The next set of university presidents will likely begin the shift of universities to an itinerant model and rethink questions about cost, down to daily operations, rethinking how to conduct the orchestra that is a thriving university. In India, they’ve come up with a model that brings in 5,000-50,000 students into Delhi University facilities where they can take classes online but engage together, with tutorials and lecturers from people who are not quite professors but able to help educate and engage students, giving them the benefit of the university campus including its libraries and cafeterias. That’s the future. The opportunity for social interaction is critical. Students go to university not just to study but to mature and grow up.


Question: In BC, Quest University has taken a different approach than UBC and SFU. Do you see it as a model more universities should follow?

Answer: Quest is phenomenal. The problem with Quest is it’s still a very expensive model, with a small number of students per professor. If the students took the lecture material online and then had classroom interaction, Quest would be more on track with where higher education needs to be going. But they are on the right track in moving away from silos.


Question: Do you think there’s another set of ripples and waves, socially and politically, that pushing for closing borders and building walls. How will the world look as these two sets of waves converge? Will one dominate?

Answer: This is an important question. If one reads the commentary on this trend, it appears to be a reaction to the phenomenon in which young people with education can no longer find jobs because of the change that started to occur around the year 2000. The new economy hasn’t started to generate enough opportunities for all of them. If you go to California, unemployment in San Francisco is virtually nonexistent. But that is an exception. There are always going to be people caught in the transition and left behind. We have to think about what to do with those caught in the transition to prevent them from becoming disenchanted and fearing the loss of jobs. Every revolution comes with stresses and strains.


Question: Should we not be moving interactive skills training down to public school level, since so many will not attend university?

Answer: Yes, the K-12 system has to transform as well. Ministries of Education are moving in that direction and recognizing that need. But this also requires a mass movement, a change in what we demand from public education. We have to return to valuing technical and vocational skills and make it clearer that university is not for everyone. We have too many graduates with an undergraduate degree who then have to take vocational training to get experience that allows them to work. We are encouraging far too many people to go to university who could have successful career in many other areas.


Question: The public doesn’t have any meaningful data on the state of the real estate industry, particularly in Vancouver. Politicians are quoting anecdotal data and the public has nothing credible to work with. How do you see that changing?

Answer: I’m appalled. I’ve been living in Alberta for 10 years and, coming back to the city, I’m appalled at the lack of information and the poor public policy. You’re absolutely right. It’s unconscionable. Universities, like UBC, have an obligation to work toward addressing this problem because they’ve been licencing these real estate agents. I think the government is calling on them to do something about the licencing process. Knowledge has to be broadly available today. The MLS system needs to be accessible to everyone. Information on what houses sell for and so on has to be public. Knowledge about what might be the best solutions has to be publicly debated. We need to discuss whatever ideas there are out there that other countries have tried.


Question: What are the implications of these changes for the public service?

Answer: The Canadian public service is one of the best in any country. It can improve, with time and investment in technology. Governments haven’t invested the infrastructure needed for the public service to do the best job they can do.


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