Sunday, May 24, 2015

Dear Minister Sigurdson

Dear Minister Sigurdson

Congratulations on your appointment as Minister of Innovation, Advanced Education/Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour. You will have the longest Ministerial title in cabinet, and all sorts of issues to deal with. You will do it well. I am sure.

You have many challenges. Some of our Universities and Colleges have substantial financial problems with at least one being technically bankrupt and unable to see a way of ever balancing its books.

But this is a symptom of a larger problem: higher education is changing quickly around the world and we are not responding effectively to these changes here well.

In 2013 Janet Tully (a former public policy civil servant in our own Advanced Education ministry) and I wrote a book about these changes and what we need to do about them. A copy is on its way to you – but you can get a sense of the thinking here.  I am also presenting this coming Friday some more ideas along similar lines at Canada’s conference on innovation for universities and colleges (see here) and working with UNESCO on ways in which higher education could do more to have an impact on equity in our society.

There are some truly excellent things happening in Alberta’s college, university and polytechnic sector but the governance of the sector is broken and the leadership is “stuck” trying to second guess what the Government will do to it next. There is a lack of trust in Government, a lack of collaboration in the system and a lack of focus for the work of the system as a whole. We do some things well – transfer credit, quality assurance, program development – but we have created a competitive, dog-eat-dog kind of system which is the antithesis of what is needed at this time.

As with schools, it is time for a cold hard look at the system – something I did with others in 1991-2 when John Gogo was Minister of Advanced Education. I think we need a focused, expert panel to respond to these three questions:

Given the infrastructure in place and the kinds of work our colleges, universities and polytechnics are doing – what opportunities exist to dramatically improve collaboration, innovations in pedagogy and improved learning outcomes from our system?

Do we have the most appropriate form of governance for our colleges, universities and polytechnics? Can we reduce the complexity of Governance and increase public assurance?

What should be the key elements of a strategy for the future of Alberta’s post-secondary system to 2030 – a strategy that would create direction and purpose, focus and alignment and establish clear expectations for our institutions? This would enable medium term planning and funding against a system strategy which took account of the different roles each of our colleges and universities have.

I can think of three strong members of this panel – Sir John Daniel (formerly Vice Chancellor, the Open University, but at one time Vice President Academic at Athabasca University), Dr. Ross Paul (formerly President University of Windsor, but a long time administrator here in Alberta), Dr. Harvey P. Weingarten (formerly President of the University of Calgary now President of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario) – any one of whom could Chair this group. A really creative and powerful entrepreneur who are truly engaged in innovative teaching, like Dr. Sean Wise from Ryerson and a very focused and thoughtful leader like Marissa Mayer, President and CEO of Yahoo.

Take your time. Some things will be urgent – like what to do with Athabasca University – so deal with them. But don’t rush the big stuff. Better to get it right eventually than to make decisions quickly that you will come to regret. Spend time listening and seeking to understand.

Putting this all together will be tough. But you are not alone. A large number of very able people are “in waiting” to help and support. Ask for their help. Encourage a period of trust-building and conversation focused on collaboration, innovation and change all aimed at improving performance. Alberta’s system is not broken, but it is not healthy either. Your job is to restore its health by restoring trust and collaboration.

There are also some challenges in the innovation system - something I also worked on for over a decade with several Deputy Ministers, ADM's and others. There is a review of AITF underway and there needs to be a refocusing of a lot of this work. One of your predecessor had an expert panel look at the system, but predetermined some aspects of the findings before it started. You need to take a fresh look, especially given the commitment of your government to accelerate the diversification of the economy. 

You will have a lot to think about. Congratulations and sincere best wishes.

Stephen Murgatroyd, PhD FBPsS FRSA

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