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[Herald Interview] Toronto education leads way in ‘Second Machine Age’

“The history of technological development shows that the very forces that disrupt the economy also create new employment opportunities and whole new industries that we can’t predict.”

In the era of the “fourth industrial revolution,” higher education should cultivate resilience in student intellectual capacity, and “human qualities” that put people above machines, according to University of Toronto president Meric Gertler.

Gertler, a renowned Canadian urban theorist who taught at the university from 1983 through 2013, also stressed that universities and graduates should engage one another in a lifelong relationship to get a head start in the global economy.

“How can we educate our students to be ready for the disruptive changes brought by the fourth industrial revolution? The answer is to prepare them to be resilient and strengthen the four competencies that they can use throughout their career -- capacities for communication, creative problem-solving, teamwork and emotional intelligence. These are things that separate humans from machines,” he told The Korea Herald in Seoul.

University of Toronto president Meric Gertler (University of Toronto)
University of Toronto president Meric Gertler (University of Toronto)

Gertler came to Korea to promote his institution and give a boost to existing cooperation programs with Korean universities.

“There’s no question that topics like data science and machine learning could find their way into undergraduate curriculums increasingly,” he said. “Having said that, I consider myself a ‘techno-optimist.’ The history of technological development shows that the very forces that disrupt the economy also create new employment opportunities and whole new industries that we can’t predict.”

Founded by royal charter in 1827, the University of Toronto is Canada’s top-ranked public research university and also the largest, with over 61,000 students, 2,500 faculty members and 4,600 administrative staff. As a collegiate university, it comprises 11 colleges that enjoy substantial financial and institutional autonomy, and two satellite campuses in Scarborough and Mississauga.

The university is commonly ranked as the best Canadian university by various influential publications, and is 21st in the world in this year’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

“It tells me that the employers around the world recognize the quality of our education and the value of our degrees. Our graduates are being snapped up and getting great jobs, not just in Toronto but around the world,” said Gertler.

“Your chances of being a winner in these times of tremendous uncertainty and change are considerably higher, if you study at schools like UofT. At the same time, we keep in touch with our graduates and welcome them back to help them retool, reskill and retrain themselves, to complement what they’ve already learned.”

University of Toronto St. George Campus (UofT)
University of Toronto St. George Campus (UofT)

The university counts some 500 South Koreans among its students, studying various disciplines, including engineering, commerce, medicine, social sciences and humanities, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

“We also have increasingly close links with some of Korea’s largest corporations that have already invested in Toronto, or have plans to do so,” the president highlighted, mentioning the Samsung Electronics Artificial Intelligence Center at the university and a recent partnership with LG Electronics, which will build a multimillion-dollar AI research lab inside the school this fall. 

Noting that the school is strong in both basic and applied research, with faculty staff holding international expertise in their fields, Gertler said both students and faculty members increasingly commercialize their research and get involved in entrepreneurship. “There’s lots of employment opportunities in Toronto. It’s a startup hotbed and UofT is leading the way. So many of our students are involved in entrepreneurship while in school. We have nine accelerators and incubators, and generated 150 startups in just last five years.”

Experiential learning is becoming more and more popular among students, he noted. “Our cooperative education programs give students hands-on exposure in their line of work, and students take a full-year internship between their third and fourth year, which is paid for by the company. Often the company hires them after graduation.”

International internships are also on the rise, Gertler added, giving students opportunities abroad.

University College at the University of Toronto (UofT)
University College at the University of Toronto (UofT)

The scholar turned attention to Toronto as an economically vibrant, culturally diverse and tolerant and globally oriented metropolis.

“The city of Toronto is a real drawing card for students from around the world. It’s a cosmopolitan city with half of its 6 million residents born outside of Canada in all corners of the world. At University of Toronto, students can study with the world,” he said. “If Korean students want to stay in Canada after completing their study, it’s easy to do that. If you come with a student visa and graduate from a Canadian university, you can work with that visa for up to three years, and also transition from a work permit to permanent residency.”

Toronto’s roiling startup scene, stirred up by a constant process of creative destruction of small and midsized enterprises, is one of the ingredients fueling the city’s booming economy, Gertler explained. Toronto’s diversified economy -- undergirded by the sectors of finance, government, cultural industries, higher education, retail, hospitality and tourism, as well as manufacturing, particularly in autos, food, clothing and fashion -- makes it competitive and stable during industrial paradigm shifts, he added.

By Joel Lee (
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