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October 24, 2002 Elizabeth Saccá prepares Concordia for 21st century



Dean of Graduate Studies Elizabeth Saccá at the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery in 2000.

by Carol McQueen

Canada is aiming to remain one of the world’s most vibrant and wealthy societies well into the 21st century. As part of its action plan to maintain this internationally competitive edge, the federal government is looking to move Canada from 15th to 5th place by 2010 in the ranking of countries with the highest ratio of research and development investment to GDP.

To make this leap, the government wants to see enrolment in graduate school climb by five per cent a year so as to fill an expected 30,000 new job openings requiring highly skilled labour.

Elizabeth Saccá, Concordia’s new Dean of Graduate Studies, is ready to take advantage of this government commitment to higher education. She knows that now is the perfect time to tackle longstanding funding problems for graduate students and to increase the competitiveness and quality of Concordia’s graduate programs.

With 70 graduate programs and 10 more expected to be in operation within the next few years, Concordia is well placed, according to Saccá, to see its enrolment jump from approximately 4,000 today to over 6,000 in 2010. In the pursuit of excellence and expansion, Saccá is determined to leave no stone unturned.

To facilitate and quicken the admissions process, Saccá is looking to information systems technology for help. “We want to move toward a Web application,” she said, adding that information requests and communications with prospective students could be handled through a coherent, centralized system, “as opposed to the bunch of little systems we have now.”

Attracting new students and keeping current ones in their graduate programs until completion will require much more than just an improved application process, however.

Key to success here will be increasing the levels of funding available to students. In Quebec, just over 50 per cent of doctoral students actually complete their course of study. “The vast majority of people who drop out are dropping out at the end, because they’ve run out of money.”

Some 97 per cent of Quebec graduate students accumulate debt during their studies, and 25 per cent of these owe over $25,000 by the end of their degrees.

Sacca sees several ways of tackling this problem. One is to convince the federal government to give more money to graduate students. “There needs to be an increase in the amount of money from the three main federal funding agencies,” she said, adding that she is working closely with the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada in its lobbying of the government on this issue.

Saccá also believes that tax laws should be amended to make scholarships and bursaries exempt from taxation.

She hopes a certain symbiosis will emerge: the more well-funded graduate students Concordia has, the more quality research the university can undertake, and thus the more funding it can obtain from such bodies as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. “These things stimulate one another,” Saccá said, “genius doesn’t happen in isolated corners; it usually happens in clusters of people working together.”

Private sources of funding are equally important. “I would like to put into place more endowments, endowed fellowships and assistantships,” Saccá said, “and that’s going to take working with alumni and board members who can help us raise funds.”

Although Concordia receives less endowments than older universities, it does have one distinct edge in terms of pulling in graduate students: its cultural diversity and openness.

Since the student age population in Canada is leveling off, the federal government predicts that Canadian universities will have to attract more foreign students and recent immigrants in order to meet proposed targets for graduate school admissions.

According to the Quebec government’s figures, Concordia is the Quebec university that already most appeals to this clientele. “As Quebec is changing, we’re in a very interesting, advantageous position because we are in the middle of the evolution of Quebec,” she explained, “and that is breathtaking.”

Being an artist and having taught an art education at Concordia since 1975, Saccá is adamant that in its quest for excellence in research and development, the Canadian government must not favour hard sciences over social sciences and humanities.

“In order to have scientific research that’s really productive and useful and fits into the world,” she said, “you need culture and community, and you need to address questions of ethics.”

However, she does agree that the humanities and social sciences, where the dropout rates for graduate students are highest, could adopt more effective research practices from the physical and life sciences, where the completion rate of graduate degrees reaches as high as 90 per cent in some fields.

According to Saccá, research groups are largely responsible for this success, and she hopes to encourage their formation in the Social Sciences.

“To have a research team that they are part of helps students continue and finish programs,” she explained, “they are part of something, of a little society, a little community.”