Martin Hicks – Giving thanks

I looked around the family table at Thanksgiving dinner and was struck by this: of the eleven Ontarians represented, seven are students in our higher education system at this moment in time. Despite the small sample, what’s represented here is richer than gravy.

This family is hungrily learning at both college and university, towards a range of credentials including undergraduate and master’s degrees, a graduate certificate and none at all. The menu of discipline areas includes the humanities, sciences, applied arts and a couple of professions on the side.

The age of my voracious learners spans 19 to 88, with an average age of 37 (31 if I drop the high and the low from the calculation – this is definitely a life-long learning crowd). Modes of instruction they selected include face to face, distance/technology mediated, and workplace-integrated. Their individual motivations for studying vary from focussed career launch, to mid-life renewal, to plain and simple love of learning.

Five are benefiting from financial assistance. All seven found study options in Ontario that accommodate their varied personal situations and cater to their specific needs.

Most importantly, they all believe in what they are doing, are welcoming of the opportunity to do it, and like what is being served up.

Are they an atypical group? Certainly the high proportion attending (seven of eleven) is a temporary phenomenon. It was less two years ago and will be less two years from now, as folk in this family transition into (and back into) a primarily labour market focus. But the transitioning aspect itself is representative. The life-long learning theme is representative.

Ontario’s been talking about life-long learning, flexible options and serving older students for decades. But progress has always been impeded by the persistent and proportionally overwhelming size of the traditional market of younger students right out of high school. What I see happening around my table is a blurring of the younger and older markets.

More youngish folk are staying on, or quickly returning, for a second credential or additional skills. And they want the same thing older students want: flexible learning arrangements, minimal time to return to the job market, real-world learning outcomes. We are starting to deliver to the benefit of both. Example: the three masters and graduate certificate programs served at my table are done in a year, two include a significant work-integrated component, and one is mostly at a distance. It’s good.

Thank you. Thank you, readers of this who are working in institutions, in government, in all corners of the business. You created these opportunities for my family. You put on an excellent feast.

Martin Hicks is HEQCO’s executive director, data and statistics.

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