Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Town and gown' collaboration needed

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This first week of September is a time when two important cycles in the life of this city interact and intertwine.

First, the municipal election campaign promises to move beyond the sleepy policy discussions about property-tax cuts and restoring pedestrian traffic on Portage and Main to more meaningful debates about the future of Winnipeg.

At the same time, we witness universities, colleges and our public schools reopening their doors for the fall semester with images of orientation-week frivolities, rock climbs and nervous first-graders.

What is missing is a discussion about education that is in near crisis, with the old formulas of financing failing. Standards are falling with obsolescent facilities and there is no effective access program for newcomers and low-income students to allow full access to post-secondary education. Ignoring this reality puts the economic and social well-being of the city at risk.

City politicians have a major stake in determining how to fix not just potholes but our educational infrastructure. They can lay out demands for programs that integrate civic, provincial and federal policies to support a learning strategy for our city.

At the same time, academic leadership must define how their institutions can collaborate in defining this learning strategy and re-tooling their educational practices to meet the changing character and new demands of the city. There needs to be a much closer recognition of a learning partnership between the "town and gown" -- municipalities and academics.

Let's look at some ways to do this.

A first priority is job creation. Young people are having trouble finding work or setting up new businesses and putting their skills and aptitude into play. This is especially true for those from lower-income backgrounds. A decade of public cuts at all levels has substantially decreased good-paying entry-level jobs. The city could take the initiative in setting out local preference purchasing policies focused on job creation and new business startups.

Improved skills is a platform for getting students into the job market. Academic institutions face real difficulty in assisting students because the system does not include sufficient resources for counselling and job placement. Student-assistance programs do not start early enough. There are many city schools where the dropout rate at Grade 9 is 50 per cent or worse. We need to do more to keep them in school and interested in learning and the city should play a role in this.

The demographics of the city are undergoing tectonic shifts. Our aboriginal population is going through a massive growth spurt and will be 20 per cent of the city population in the next decade. More immigration from the rest of the world means another demographic shift. We now see a much younger population evolving, key drivers of growth, enterprise and innovation, bringing a richness of culture and talent to our city.

But, there is limited attention to their potential and we are still captive to stereotypes, discrimination and, worst of all, indifference to these fellow Winnipeggers and to the places where they live -- the downtown and the inner city and the West End.

Then there is affordable housing. The province announced a goal of 1,400 new units in the inner city and the federal government has ponied up money as well. The city has a tax incentive for private development but it is limited to a narrow ring in the downtown area that does not include the residential area in the inner city. Tied into this is the issue of homelessness. Winnipeg was one of the urban centres across the country that participated in a research program that demonstrated providing safe accommodation was one of the most successful means of addressing the homeless issue, ultimately saving money on health care and policing. The United Way issued a broad-based community report on how to end homelessness through a partnership of academic involvement and a community housing and service approach. Commitment to this should be a major focus in the civic election with our universities and colleges playing a major supporting role.

There are some good attempts at co-operation. Take a look at the neighbourhood-inspired reclamation of the area around the Merchants Hotel on Selkirk Avenue where the province is the major donor, the University of Winnipeg is both the developer and educational participant and the city has dedicated some property. But such examples are rare.

Let's realize the cities that prosper, that become integrated into a global economy are those that reset their priorities to become centres of innovation. This can come from city politicians working with academics willing to see beyond the ivory tower walls. They can provide development both in the way they shape the physical space but also in how they educate, train and research, giving the city the innovative capacity it needs.

Lloyd Axworthy recently retired as president of the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2014 A11

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