Creating a United Nations student experience

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Feridun Hamdullahpur
Feridun Hamdullahpur

Waterloo University prides itself on innovation, in every area from student support to its groundbreaking research ambitions. Here Waterloo president Feridun Hamdullahpur tells Martin Ince about its central role in the Silicon Valley of Canada.

Feridun Hamdullahpur, president of the University of Waterloo in Canada, begins our discussion with a strongly held belief. “In this life, nothing is ever stable.” An enthusiast for futures thinking, he is fascinated by the rapid rate of change in modern societies and organisations. As an example, he points to Waterloo itself. “In 1957 we had 74 students. Now have 37,000. We build the whole time, but it is hard to keep our infrastructure adequate. The only constant is that the number of people who want to be here keeps increasing.”

While Waterloo is one of Canada’s most research-intensive institutions, Hamdullahpur is well aware that students are its lifeblood. One reason it has continued to grow is that the best people keep applying. Waterloo has Canada’s top scores for student entrance qualifications and as he says, “You can’t just turn away top applicants. We planned to grow by 1% last year, but ended up at eight.”

The academic brilliance of its faculty is one reason for Waterloo’s appeal to students. Hamdullahpur tries to hire top researchers, but always on the understanding that they will spend some time in front of students. This is not always an easy pitch to potential recruits.

But in addition, he points out that two-thirds of his students take part in “Co-op” working, a uniquely Canadian institution that allows students to do paid work for academic credit. While many Canadian undergraduates do this, Waterloo students often do five co-op placements. This is good for their careers, but also helps them financially. Participation is 100% in some areas such as engineering.

Hamdullahpur adds too that Waterloo’s appeal to international students is an important part of its growth story. In Ontario, Canada’s biggest province, only the University of Toronto brings in more foreign students. Seventeen per cent of Waterloo undergraduates are from outside Canada, as are 36% of graduate students. In some disciplines, the figure exceeds half.

Hamdullahpur’s international ambition is a simple one. It is to create “a UN-like international campus” where Canadian and overseas students alike can have a global experience. That means more foreign students. For graduate students, the figure could reach 40% over time. But it also calls for the international student body to be more diverse. Hamdullahpur says: “At the moment most of our overseas students are from China, and we are delighted with them. But we want the campus to be even more international. So we plan to grow numbers from India, Pakistan, the Middle East, the UK and the US. And we recognise that doing this will involve looking beyond today’s means of student support. At the same time, we need to make sure that Waterloo is a fully Canadian experience for our students.”

Part of the attraction of Waterloo for international students is that it is a cheaper option than universities in the US, the UK or Australia. But the university has also been working on its financial attractiveness to domestic students. In Canada, Hamdullahpur points out, the provinces have almost all power over student matters, while the national government is in control of research. He says: “The government of Ontario made a courageous move by offering free tuition and supported living costs to anyone with a family income of less than CAD 50,000 a year [about US$39,000]. We connect students to a wide range of financing options. Because of these initiatives, and our approach to co-op work, we have the most graduates in Canada with no debt, and the lowest default rate for student loans.”

Waterloo also plans to make the most of another Ontario policy, termed “differentiation.” This is the province’s decision to classify universities by type and fund them accordingly. Hamdullahpur says that this approach will “free Waterloo from the need to have big student number growth to bring in money.” He adds: “We aim to have a faculty/student ratio that makes Waterloo good for students, and a healthy ratio of graduate to undergraduate students, so that we remain a research-intensive university with an attractive student offer. We are already a strong Canadian university in the STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] fields as well as being good at the arts.”

Hamdullahpur well understands that the research-intensive university category into which Waterloo fits under differentiation is an enviable one. The university is already among the biggest recipients of national research funding, and is now building on this success to grow its other streams of research income. He says: “We want to reduce our dependency on government research funding. Today we bring in 30% of our research income from industry, when a typical figure for a Canadian university is about 12%. And we are growing our international research. At the moment, we bring in CAD 200 million a year, with CAD 17 million from outside Canada.” He adds that although its strong technology offering is the big attraction to international funders, Waterloo research also looks at global issues such as refugees, while the university is home to the world’s biggest research programme on smoking cessation. Hamdullahpur expects artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and data science to be future research priorities.

Private Property

Waterloo has developed several ways to make studying at Waterloo financially as well as intellectually engaging. One is its big commitment to co-op working. Another, the Velocity Incubator programme, is designed to let students run their own companies. In addition, it is university policy to allow any student or academic to keep 100% of the intellectual property they generate. This tempting offer, says Hamdullahpur, helps get academics and students to “think beyond publishing” when they consider their research and their learning.

Hamdullahpur, himself an engineer, says that this enthusiasm for business links is a vital part of Waterloo’s high standing in the local economy. He sees Waterloo as “the heart of a very unusual ecosystem” of businesses of all types and sizes. Local businesses of note include Blackberry, the now-reduced symbol of the mobile communications era of the early 21st century, as well as OpenText, a leading information management company that grew out of Waterloo research. Overall, he reckons that 800–1,000 local firms are involved in some form of high technology, showing that “it is possible to have a good career in technology here without moving to Silicon Valley.” He expects the effect to snowball as local companies that would once have been happy to hit a $10 million valuation get ideas about reaching a billion instead.

Invited to look to the future of Waterloo, Hamdullahpur says that he is always both worried and excited about “the next big thing.” Dealing with the future involves thinking about the big picture of what will happen next, but also about how Waterloo participates in change. This thinking affects the structure of the university, how it hires people, and how it looks at social, scientific and economic issues on a global scale. Topics such as information science, water and ageing have already emerged as strategic priorities. He says: “When we look at water, we think about social and economic issues as well as scientific ones, and that applies to other areas too. So our work on ageing looks at the environment and resources that people need to live well and age gracefully.” There are also student-oriented issues that will remain important. One is student health, especially mental health, an emerging worry throughout higher education.

Hamdullahpur regards all these as global issues to which Waterloo must help produce answers. “I see this university as a stellar institution that is part of the solution to these big questions. This aim affects everything we do, including our hiring decisions. As we recruit 50–100 academics a year, many on tenure track, these priorities have a major effect on the way we operate.”

Feridun Hamdullahpur was born in Turkey and took his bachelor’s and master’s degrees there before taking his PhD in Canada. He is a mechanical engineer with a strong interest in energy and thermo-fluids. He became president and vice chancellor of Waterloo in 2011 and was made a fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering in 2014. He stresses “the value of basic research and its relevance to educational excellence and economic prosperity.”