Wild Geese: Orna Duggan, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario
Learning lessons about priorities in Canada
Orna Duggan: Canadians are “not as critical of their country as we are of ours”
“They probably talk about the weather more than we do,” says Orna Duggan, a recent emigrant to Ontario, Canada. Emigrating in 2011, she’s contending with colder winters, but the people are just as warm.
Duggan is director for institutional research and planning at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, a city 100km north of Toronto. With Canada’s universities experiencing the same squeeze as those in Ireland, her job is to make sure cuts are based on the best data.
Graduating with a degree in science from Trinity College in 1993, a doctorate in chemical engineering took Duggan further down the science route. Subsequent roles in production and process engineering in pharma companies, however, prompted a change.
“The objective in manufacturing is to keep everything the same. You’re having a good day if nothing happens,” she recalls. Desiring more change, she joined strategy consultants, Prospectus, where she worked for 10 years, mostly with higher education clients here. When a subsequent three-year contract implementing a research strategy for the 14 institutes of technology came to an end, she decided to look overseas.
“I’m a bit impetuous sometimes,” says the Mayo native. “I don’t think I lost a single night’s sleep over it. I just thought yes, I’ll try that.”
Wilfrid Laurier University is going through a period of change. With education in Canada predominantly publicly funded and with the country feeling some effects of recession, government is driving reform of the sector.
“The university is facing up to the fact that it has more to do with less,” says Duggan. “We’re going through a process of prioritisation which means that all academic and administrative activity is being assessed and a decision is being made about whether it will remain a priority or is no longer part of what we want to do.
“I’d say the universities in Canada aren’t enthused about it, but I’m lucky that I work with a very modernising university president.”
She says the “collegial” decision-making that tends to characterise universities can make choices about what’s important and what’s not, difficult.
“That’s where an evidence-based approach comes in. You produce the evidence for how you are performing, what you’re contributing, what your quality is like, how many students want that particular programme, how up to date it is, and match that against the university’s goals,” she says. “It helps the dialogue if you have evidence to back it up. It takes some of the emotion out of it.”
She says such an approach would have been useful in her previous roles with Irish universities. “You’re weighing your evidence against the objectives of the university and then everything gets put in order of priority. What’s at the bottom gets phased out. What’s close to the top, if and when you have the extra resources, you provide them to those areas.”
Canada’s well-funded system has made her look at Irish universities in a new light. “It makes you realise how proactive and ambitious the universities and institutes in Ireland are. I think they have shown themselves to be able to manage what is a very under-funded system.”
Duggan says attracting research funding is less of a metric of success at Canadian universities than here. “The emphasis is more on teaching and learning but with government reform, it may trend the other way.”
With fees rising and world recession impacting jobs, she says Canadian students are also beginning to think differently about college.
“The dialogue is starting to come much more frequently towards students saying one of the main reasons for going to college is to get a job. That’s a big shift for the universities here to deal with. They are very much under pressure to talk about learning outcomes and what a student can expect to have when they graduate.”
She says the culture of doing business, at least in Ontario, lives up to the stereotype of Canada as being “incredibly polite”.
“You can come out of a meeting thinking that was a really agreeable, amicable decision about something, but later realise that’s not how it was at all. People are polite and hide their opinions if they are contrary. But you learn to adapt.”
Duggan says despite the fact that so many Canadians are migrants; all are extremely proud of Canada and very patriotic. “They’re not as critical of their country as we are of ours. We can be hard on ourselves. They have their political scandals, but they’re good at recognising what they have. They’re a pretty optimistic people.”