| 5 minute read

“The most innovative university must be innovating all of the time”

Madeline Arkins

As part of our Fireside Chat series, UIIN’s Learning Experience Designer and Facilitator Andrey Dyachenko sat down with Dr. Feridun Hamdullahpur to discuss how to balance teaching and research, and how higher education needs to be constantly evolving in order to make a difference. Dr. Hamdullahpur began his academic career as an Assistant Engineering Professor and was President and Vice Chancellor of the University of Waterloo, Canada’s most innovative university, for 11 years. Today, he is an active researcher and faculty member at the university and serves on numerous university advisory boards around the world. Here we describe the main insights from the discussion.

The “Waterloo Model”: an innovative approach to education

Dr. Hamdullahpur described the origin and evolution of the education model, first pioneered at the University of Waterloo. What began in 1957 as a concept to bridge excellent and research-intensive academic offerings with the industry/business world outside of the university, became today’s highly successful “cooperative education programme” that tens of thousands of students opt into each year. This programme gives the students the opportunity to study one term at university and the following at a relevant workplace. The programme is supported by infrastructure – a well-staffed co-op office and a sophisticated contacts system connected to almost 7,000 employers around the world. Dr. Hamdullahpur presented the practical outcomes of the co-op as fourfold:

  1. Students encounter great personal growth, finding, interviewing, and occasionally re-locating for these opportunities themselves
  2. Students gain significant insight into the why and what they are learning in the classroom and are able to bring this relevant knowledge and experience back to their peers and professors
  3. As a result of their work experience, when they graduate, students have no accumulated debt and their starting salaries are often much higher
  4. Employers have access to student talent who already possess the necessary skills to join the workforce e.g., the ability to work in a team, communicate, creatively problem-solve etc.

The core idea of the co-op program remains the same and proves even more pertinent today, asserts Hamdullahpur. The continued success of the program lies in its consistent evaluation from both students and employers, and hearing from each what is important for them and establishing a relationship with these networks of employers.

The dichotomy between the over-abundance of graduates and talent demand in certain areas means HEIs cannot exist in a vacuum; their students must receive an education that is relevant”.

Velocity, University of Waterloo’s premier incubator

Velocity started as a converted student residence to channel and mobilise the ideas of students and has since grown into the successful incubation centre it is today. Hamdullahpur argues that its success would not have occurred at this rate nor this scale without the foundational support of the co-op experience that primes students with the knowledge, competence and courage to stand behind their idea and believe that it is a worthy endeavour. The incubator is supported by volunteers from external stakeholders of all kinds – industry, business, non-profit etc. – who act as advisors to students in the programme. This entrepreneurial spirit is also fostered on the faculty side and is incentivized by the university’s generous IP policies which grant researchers 100% ownership of their own IP.

From these connections with external stakeholders both through the co-op and incubator programmes, the university in turn learns what employers are looking for in terms of talent, which is primarily that students need to be able to problem-solve, and to communicate effectively both orally and verbally i.e., “soft skills.” Dr. Hamdullahpur rejects the rigid binary of “soft” versus “hard” skills and sees them both as essential in teaching and in research in terms of one’s ability to think and express oneself, and that success in both attracts better talent and students.

If I cannot clearly explain to someone what research problem I am trying to solve and why that means I don’t quite understand why I’m doing it”.

The balance of research and teaching

The pace of change in technology and industry is now so rapid that if you are sitting on the status quo today, tomorrow it will not be sufficient if you do not innovate. The very same risk and challenges exist for universities today. As such, in today’s environment, you need to be both excellent in research and also be able to impart this to your students in order to enable them to learn and face these challenges.

I categorically refuse the notion that ‘you can either be an excellent researcher or an excellent teacher, but you cannot be excellent in both.’ To me, research and teaching are two parts of the same whole”.

There has been an attitude shift in the last few decades; today, you can no longer be an excellent researcher and a poor teacher, and still achieve tenure. The idea, Hamdullahpur asserts, is not to eliminate great researchers from being hired but to help them become more effective teachers. Universities must invest in this area as we delve into more complex, hybrid teaching models where a teacher requires more specific techniques and a strong ability to communicate in order to enable students to learn.

Lastly, for those inspired by the University of Waterloo and planning to build innovation ecosystems within their own institution, Dr. Hamdullahpur offers the following suggestion: conduct a rigorous SWOT analysis in order to understand how to build upon your strengths and tackle your weaknesses. In addition, he says, “don’t just stay as one institution,” network both within your region, as well as internationally at both student and faculty level; a wide and interdisciplinary approach will garner far greater societal impact.


Madeline Arkins (author) is a Project Officer at UIIN. In her work she focuses on topics relating to social impact and innovation in regional ecosystems.

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