Universities must teach students ‘how to imagine’

University of Waterloo president says modern universities must combine research and creativity 

March 20, 2018
Colourful eye

Research universities must focus on developing students’ creativity and imagination if they want to survive in the future, a leading university head has claimed.

Feridun Hamdullahpur, president of the University of Waterloo, said that, while universities needed to focus on building up the quality of their research in specific subject areas, “disciplinary excellence” was “simply not enough”.

“Universities are not immune from destruction and if they are not thinking creatively and differently, students will discriminate against the old traditional type of education,” Professor Hamdullahpur said during a keynote address at the Times Higher Education MENA Universities Summit in Jeddah.

“We need to look at [education] from a much broader perspective and understand the dire need for the evolution of our curriculum.”

Professor Hamdullahpur added that “the best tool we can give our students in addition to their fantastic disciplinary-based education, is enabling them to imagine and understand that creativity will have to be an integral part of their education”.

“My key message is our modern 21st-century universities can no longer say, ‘here is our fantastically tall research pillar that we are proud of’. It is fantastic but if that pillar is not connected with every other aspect of the university, it doesn’t make us a modern research university,” he continued.

Professor Hamdullahpur said that imagination, creativity and confidence can be triggered in students if institutions expose them to the groundbreaking research that is taking place on their campuses, for example by enabling them to work in research labs or apply research to their studies.

The University of Waterloo has also helped create these attributes, he said, by having a strong emphasis on cooperative education, which is mandatory for engineering and computer science students and is offered optionally in all other subjects at the institution.

This involves students alternating between studying on campus and working in industry throughout their degree; in total, students are paid to work for two years during the course.

Professor Hamdullahpur said that the Canadian government has recognised the value of such courses by providing “tax benefits” for firms that hire “co-op students”.

Sang Hyuk Son, president of Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea, which enrolled its first students in 2011, agreed that creativity was a key part of education.

During a panel on delivering a successful research strategy at the summit, he said that undergraduate students at the university “do not have majors or departments”.

“For the first four years of their education they cover most of the basic sciences” as well as engineering and computing, he said. They are also required to take courses in social science and humanities and leadership and entrepreneurship and learn both a musical instrument and martial arts for at least one year.

Cynthia Wilbanks, vice-president for government relations at the University of Michigan, added during a separate panel that the institution is launching new “post-graduation micro-certificates”.

She said that these courses, which provide a set of skills through a “shortened curriculum”, were developed for students who have gained a degree in “a field where they thought they were going to have opportunity” but have decided they would like to work in a different area.

“This is revolutionary in some ways in the university context that thinks about things in four years and five years and six years. To think about a micro-certificate at a place like the University of Michigan means disruption,” she said.


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