Nov. 2, 2018

How can universities evolve in the global knowledge economy?

Calgary is ramping up its knowledge economy. Innovation, education and international connections are now more important than ever if we want to stay competitive

On the window sill of my office at the University of Calgary I keep a cricket bat signed by World Cricket legend Mahela Jayawardene, a Wayne Gretzky of the sport, and my 1992 graduation picture from the University of Moratuwa in Sri Lanka. Every time I look out the window at students from across Canada and around the world walking to and from class, I am reminded of the power of sharing ideas, research and people’s talents across borders.

Here at the university, we call this internationalization. And we have put in place a carefully thought out strategy, and a number of policies and programs to see both our students go abroad to study and to welcome students from other countries to come study here. This exchange of minds is crucial for this university, our community and the planet.  

UCalgary has worked hard to become a global intellectual hub. In the global knowledge economy we’re competing with other top-research institutions around the world and we know that our internationalization programs are why many students choose to attend our university. When Canadian students come back from their experiences away, they enrich our community with their new knowledge.

In this interconnected world, people can lend their talents and share information like never before in human history. Our concerns have evolved from ‘brain drain’ to ‘brain gain’ to finally the recognition of the benefits of ‘brain circulation.’ More than ever, we are in the business of not only developing but circulating both knowledge and talent all over the world.

By collaborating across borders in a wide range of intellectual activities at other universities, our scholars are helping us tackle complex global issues such as climate change, clean and affordable energy and poverty. With the current seismic shifts in global geopolitics, it’s even more important to connect with others around the corner and around the world to better understand how things work and how to solve the challenges we face.

Study abroad enables life-changing experiences

Every year, about 1,200 of our undergraduate students take part in one of the 150+ study abroad programs which allow them to study, live and travel in one of the tens of countries available.

And every year, hundreds of international students bring their considerable talents to our campus where they attend classes, work in our labs and share their world view with their fellow students. Some of these students stay and become valuable colleagues, employees and members of the community. Others take their new-found Canadian perspective back home. In each and every case both Canadian and international students make important connections, further the discovery of knowledge and develop themselves both personally and professionally.

UCalgary students tell me all the time how their time abroad has changed their lives and often helped determine the path of their careers. Students who visited a village in India where people have to walk two or three kilometres a day to get fresh water came back with ideas on improving water filters. Those who visited a hospital in Africa where pregnant women have to line up for space to have their babies came back determined to enhance rural health care. Ideas that our scholars generate in one part of the world are transforming societies—and lives—in other parts of the world.  

When you step out of your boundaries to see what else is happening in the world, amazing things can happen. I know this because I’ve lived it.  After I finished my undergraduate degree in Sri Lanka, I did a masters in construction management in Arizona and came to Alberta to complete a PhD in civil engineering. For the last 21 years, I’ve lived and worked here, teaching countless students, raising my family and contributing to my community.  For the last six years I have had the great privilege to oversee the university’s international strategy, a concerted and coordinated effort that’s ensuring our students and faculty are part of a thriving global intellectual hub.

In today’s climate where we see increasing barriers to flow of goods and people, I believe it’s even more important that we pursue the internationalization of ideas and those who develop them. We remain committed to promoting diversity of thought, culture and respect for alternatives. Together with scholars around the world, we are encouraging our students’ personal development, boosting our city’s competitive advantage and discovering knowledge to solve problems that plague our planet.

When I host meetings in my office, colleagues and students will often ask me about the cricket bat sitting on the window sill in the corner. I am proud to tell them a little about the sport I grew up playing in Sri Lanka. And I am proud to be a part of a university that sees the strength in working together across borders.

University of Calgary’s international strategy aims to increase the diversity of students on campus, strengthen intercultural competencies, advance educational and research partnerships and boost international development efforts.

Dr. Janaka Ruwanpura, PhD, is the Vice-Provost (international) and Professor of Civil Engineering and Project Management of the University of Calgary.