I have been working on a large international project with a colleague from HEQCO for the past year or so and have been fascinated hearing about the work that goes on in the higher education space in Canada, and particularly Ontario. So when an opportunity to visit Toronto and participate in the Learning to Earning conference organised by HEQCO arose, I was very willing to ‘put my hand up.’
I am ashamed to say that this was my first visit to Canada, but I am sure it won’t be my last. The insight I gained, connections made and experiences afforded through the visit were highly valuable. This blog offers some thoughts and reflections on the Learning to Earning conference from the perspective of an Australian who does not have an intimate knowledge of the postsecondary education (PSE) landscape of Canada.
First of all, this was a really well organised conference, attended by people not only with a passion for PSE, but also with the policy and research understanding to stimulate meaningful debate and discussion about graduate outcomes. The conference was initiated and run by a public organisation, and did not have an exorbitant registration fee, which says a lot about the role that these conferences play in the Canadian PSE landscape. We have numerous higher education conferences in Australia, but increasingly over the past few years these have been staged by private conference-organising businesses, which charge a huge registration fee, attract a small audience and cobble together a program that sometimes resembles the kitchen table at my home after my two toddlers have ‘finished’ dinner. The HEQCO conference offered a welcome change from this all too common experience, with a well-integrated program that helped to group researchers with similar interests together in sessions that generated substantial audience participation.
The opening keynote by Kevin Lynch, vice‐chairman of BMO Financial Group, was really useful in context-setting. It helped me understand the psyche of Canadians in terms of how they want to be perceived by the rest of the world – “yes we are ‘nice Canadians’, but we want to also be known as innovative!” This presentation and numerous others over the course of the conference also confirmed for me the large influence that Canada’s southern neighbour has on policy decisions, benchmarking and all manner of issues in higher education.
Overall, from the discussions in the organised sessions and the more informal conversations during the breaks, I found that the ambitions and backgrounds of Canada and Australia align closely – even if our higher education systems do differ slightly. For this reason, I feel that there are many lessons we can learn from each other as our countries forge on in the 21st century.
One lesson for Australia is the role that organisations like HEQCO can play in facilitating high quality research into important areas of higher education policy and practice. I was very impressed with the number of presentations at this conference that were either entirely, or co-funded by HEQCO and I felt that the role of the council in pursuing such a range of projects was often understated.
Canada can perhaps learn more from Australia in the field of work-integrated learning (WIL). I attended a couple of sessions where WIL was extensively discussed, and while I am not an expert in this area, my feeling was that these problems had been grappled with (although not necessarily all solved) in Australian higher education some time ago.
During the session in which I was involved as a speaker, I found the discussion and engagement of the audience stimulating. I presented research from an Australian study of graduate outcomes and discussed some key findings particularly in relation to under-represented groups and women. The session also included important presentations by Canadian colleagues (Shuping Liu from HEQCO and Patrick Bussière from HRSDC) who looked at graduate outcomes data from a Canadian collection. What was fascinating about these presentations was how the data from our two countries tended to tell the same story: university education helps to boost income and productivity of individuals, but some groups (women in particular) are still disadvantaged in labour market outcomes regardless of educational qualifications. The questions stimulated by this research will continue to inspire further research and collaboration to provide an evidence base for policy measures to improve outcomes for years (if not decades) to come.
The last impression that I will detail here is related to a conversation that I did not hear at any stage throughout the conference: research rankings. The current preoccupation in Australia (and most other places in the world that I visit through my work) seems to be on synthesized international comparisons of universities based on metrics gathered to represent research output. While there is room for these discussions, in many conferences and meetings I have been involved with lately, the emphasis on rankings has substantially diverted attention away from other facets of universities, particularly learning, teaching and graduate outcomes. That this conference was not about research helped stem conversations about rankings – but in my recent experience, the conference topic is irrelevant to whether a discussion on research metrics occurs. The focus on other issues for at least a few days was welcome!
I look forward to ‘making tracks’ back to Canada in the future and reconnecting with the great group of people who welcomed me this year.
Daniel Edwards is principal research fellow in the higher education research program at the Australian Council for Educational Research and an adjunct research fellow at the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University.
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