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Innovation and the Academy: Are We Recognizing Student-Centricity?

The EvoLLLution | Innovation and the Academy: Are We Recognizing Student-Centricity?
Though higher education rankings are meant to give students a sense of how successful they might be at a given institution, they’re only truly relevant for a small set of students with specific aspirations to grow in the academy.

Higher education rankings are often used as a proxy to determine and define an institution’s relative success. However, as the priorities and goals of students have evolved—especially in the last decade—the relevance of these rankings requires a closer look. In this interview, Marie Bountrogianni shares her thoughts on the factors that truly characterize student-centric institutions and reflects on how rankings should evolve to speak to the needs of today’s learners.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for colleges and universities today to be student-centered?

Marie Bountrogianni (MB): Students are the most important part of postsecondary institutions. The students and their needs, their learning styles and their future is central to what we do. That’s more important than our careers and our fulfillment.

At Ryerson, we have always been great at giving students a really good experience that will help them in their careers. We have the Digital Media Zone (DMZ), which helps them in building businesses. We have the Center for Urban Energy, which helps them launch energy-related start-ups. The Launch Zone, which is basically like the DMZ but for all faculties and all areas including fashion, journalism and social innovation. We’re teaching and encouraging entrepreneurship in a wide range of fields, not just technology and engineering.

It’s critical that we do anything we can to build a strong student experience and drive their success. If a student wants to see me, even if my day or week is packed with meetings and appointments, I try my best to find a time to talk because they remind us what we’re here for.

Evo: What are some of the themes that are central to a student-centered institution?

MB: There are a few central characteristics for a student-centered institution. One is offering flexible learning opportunities. Many of our students have families and work. Some are enrolled part-time while others are enrolled full-time and juggling lots of priorities so it really helps to give them some flexibility, allowing them to take some of these courses online and continue to work. We need to help students earn their degree or certificate in a reasonable timeframe, and the more flexibility we can give, the better for the students.

Career advising is also critical. We have a strong focus on that at the Chang School because most of our students enroll in continuing education because they want either a different job or a promotion within their jobs. Providing career advising is very important.

Evo: How are institutions that focus on delivering a student-centered educational experience generally represented in standard ranking lists?

MB: A lot of the factors that go into these ranking lists do not encompass what universities like Ryerson do. For example, in the Maclean’s University Rankings we’re number nine in the comprehensive listing but our DMZ was voted the best university-based incubator in North America, so it depends what the student wants.

If the student wants a fully academic career—they know they want to be a professor or a researcher—then they have to look at the rankings where that is taken into account and most rankings take that into account. If, however, they want to do something different—they want to use their credential to gain access or growth in a specific industry or in the public sector—then I would recommend that they look at the rankings that take other factors into account.

Evo: How effective are these ranking systems in giving non-traditional students a sense of whether they will be successful at a given institution?

MB: Prospective students need to consider the rankings but go beyond that. The best thing that a potential university student can do is talk to people at various universities: current students, graduates as well as staff and faculty. Faculty and staff are all proud of their institutions and will provide positive feedback because we’re all proud of where we work. But for an unbiased opinion, talk to students enrolled in a program, talk to students who have finished the program. Are they working? Are they happy with where they landed? Did their education help them get there? Those are important questions that the rankings don’t answer. I wouldn’t dismiss the rankings, but they’re just one factor in choosing a university.

Evo: How valuable would a ranking system that measures student-centric factors be?

MB: A student-centric ranking system would be valuable on a number of levels. For example, a ranking system that sheds some light into the entrepreneurial support of a given university would be important for students who know that they want to be creative and independent, want to work for themselves and open a business.

Rankings do make a difference for students coming from other countries. Scholarships are often based on rankings and, again, the student has to balance that with what they want to do with their degrees.

This idea of making sure your degree will work for you after graduation is critical for all prospective students. Today, there are so many professions that didn’t exist before. For example, we offer a Certificate in Disaster and Emergency Relief Management. That whole industry didn’t really exist before the climate change issue became front and center. We offer a Certificate in Computer Security and Digital Forensics because of all the hacking that’s going on. These programs happen when administrators look at the labor market and create programs that respond to those needs. We need to have educational offerings that provide students with exposure to those areas. Students need to study what they love but keep an eye on the labor market to supplement what they’re studying with real job skill-type education. A ranking system that helps show how universities can help students do this would be critical.

Evo: How active should rankings publishers be in noting and highlighting these alternative and innovative approaches to higher education?

MB: They should include them more because they’re published widely, read widely and respected widely. Therefore, I would think it’s their responsibility to include more factors that a student might find important, like innovation, employment success, links to industry, level of student support, and co-op placements.

I really like the Maclean’s rankings, and I’m in line to buy their ranking report when it comes out. That said, they should expand their factors, and if they can’t or it’s not in their mandate, then someone else should. The world is changing. We have many unemployed PhD’s in this country, even though traditional knowledge suggests that one’s employability and income grows with the level of credential. Let’s give these incredibly bright young people a tool that helps them make this critical decision so they can use their intelligence and their knowledge in a very real way in the workforce.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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