Ryerson enters the master

After three years of planning, consulting and finally receiving a stamp of approval, this fall marks the first year that Ryerson will offer a master of engineering in computer networks. And to help make that program possible, the Toronto-based university received a $500,000 donation from Cisco Systems that was put toward building its lab facility.

The relationship between academia and corporate culture has traditionally been seen as an important way for companies to recruit intellectual capital and establish research ties and facilitate and cement future relationships. And for cash-strapped universities, corporate donations are sometimes seen as the only way to obtain expensive equipment.

However, some believe that these types of relationships may not be as symbiotic as they seem. There is also the fear that corporate agendas will overlap and potentially dictate how courses are structured.

It’s not likely in this case, according to one Ryerson dean. “All academic decisions are under Ryerson jurisdiction, as it should be,” said Stalin Boctor program director and associate dean, faculty of engineering and applied science at Ryerson University.

He said that Cisco donated routers and switches to assist the university in setting up its computer labs for the program. And while IT is feeling the pinch, demand for the master’s program exceeded 100 applications, outnumbering positions by a five to one ratio. Long term, Boctor predicts a lasting relationship with Cisco. “Once the program grows and matures as we expect it to, there could possibly be joint research activities that would be beneficial to our students and Cisco.”

The marriage of corporate culture and academia has resulted partly because of spending cuts by the federal government to universities, as is evident by the rise of tuition fees over the past two decades. E-learning professional Brian Westbrook said that these relationships are important but remained cautious. “If it’s an out an out grant or donation and there’s no strings attached…it’s okay,” the Portage la Prairie, Man., resident said. He agrees that because of government cutbacks, universities need to find money from some place for their own survival but need to remain autonomous. “It’s a very, very slippery slope (and) you have to be very careful because once you start with one (company) where are you going to stop.”

As for Cisco, this is not its first time acting as an affiliate to a Canadian university. The company has already established two other similar relationships, the first four years ago with Dalhousie University in Halifax and another with Carleton University in Ottawa this past year. In Ryerson’s case, the equipment will provide immediate assistance in its lab environment. “It allows them to simulate different networking, routing and some high-end switching environments,” said Bob Singleton a vice-president at Cisco in Toronto. The company also provided equipment for Internet use.

Ryerson initially approached the company three years ago about launching a new program at the graduate level. Cisco in turn offered the university some advice on what the market required and where the industry may be headed. Aside from its university affiliations, it has also established the Cisco networking program and an initiative with Centennial College.

But ultimately, as Singleton said, the students are the judges. “The proof is in the pudding. If the students come out and they get good jobs and there’s good references for the program, that’s really what it’s all about.”

One Ryerson student is already testing Singleton’s theory. Carson Ko, who recently completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, has chosen the Ryerson master’s program to round out his education.

While barely two months into the yearlong endeavour, Ko is pleasantly surprised with the program thus far. “The program is more practical and better than what I expected. I expected more theory but it’s really practical,” said the North York, Ont., native. He expressed some concerns over the cost of tuition and thinks the classes, which currently run from Monday to Thursday in the evenings, should be held during the day instead. “The classes start at 5 p.m. and end at 8 p.m. For a full time student, it’s better to have classes during the day.” Ko believes he will ultimately benefit from Ryerson’s approach when the time comes to find a job, as the program combines both the practical and the theoretical elements a student will need to find employment.

Sessions for the new program began in September with a single class of 28 students. Full time enrolment fees for the one-year program are approximately $21,000. But students can also opt for a two-year program where tuition is approximately $5,000 per semester. Some of the courses include Internet communication protocols, network architecture, and software engineering and operating systems design. Also, students will partake in a case study in which they will be required to analyze the performance of a network and must choose between designing a new network or upgrading the existing system.