Axel MeisenWhat challenges are postsecondary education institutions facing today?

I would put them into two categories:

The obvious first one would be having enough operational funds and infrastructure support. There are quite a lot of problems in that respect, but I think those areas are well-known and can essentially be solved by providing more funds. Now, whether the funds are available is another matter.

The other category is asking ourselves: are we teaching the right things, or conversely, are students learning the right things, and are they learning in the best way? These are much more difficult questions to answer, because there isn’t as clear a response. The argument that’s normally made is that universities provide the basis of being able to cope with more complex problems and, in certain fields, provide essential professional skills.


What do you think university classrooms and courses will look like in the next 10-20 years? 

I think there will be much more self-study offered to and expected by students. This is partly because there won’t be enough professors in classrooms for cost reasons, but also because that’s how students like to learn. I think there will be far more students taking courses offered by other universities that are recognized by their home university. There’s no reason why, for example, a student from the University of Alberta shouldn’t be able to take an on-line course from another university in Beijing or Toronto. I think we’ll see less time spent in classrooms and lectures by students.

To offset these changes, it will become necessary professors to offer more ‘tutorials’ to small groups of students on a regular basis, but less frequently than lectures.  For example, a professor could meet with groups of 4-5 students for an hour each month, thereby providing a more personal and deeper learning experience than what we currently have.


Do you have any advice for young Canadians trying to figure out what type of education they should pursue? 

If a person has an interest in fields focused on society, the health sciences, or engineering, my advice would be to choose a university and program that provides a good understanding of how that field connects and applies more broadly. Connecting to other fields and people with different educational levels is very rewarding. Learning to work with people from different backgrounds and qualifications is really important.

Demographics tell us that the populations in Canada and virtually every other country in the world are aging. The cohort of the elderly will grow substantially. The interests and needs and desires of the elderly are quite different from those of younger people in their 20s and 30s. We’ve generally focused on the needs of the elderly by thinking about their healthcare needs, and more recently, their financial needs. That said, there are many older people who have many other interests including cultural interests, entertainment and the arts. They also have specific needs regarding housing, travel, tourism, and so on. It’s a real market opportunity, and very few university programs that prepare students for that. Not all people of retirement age are dependent, frail or impoverished. There’s a broad spectrum of needs which young people can address, resulting in very satisfying careers for them.

About the author

Axel Meisen

Axel Meisen is the President of the Canadian Commission of UNESCO, the United Nations’ educational, science, and cultural organization. He holds degrees in chemical engineering from The Imperial College of Science and Technology, the California Institute of Technology, and McGill University. He also serves on the Board of Council of Canadian Academies, a non-profit organization performing assessments of major public issues pertaining to the sciences. In addition, he has done foresight work over the past seven years.