Candidates' Post-Secondary Stance Key

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor

December 30, 2010

Opinion page of the Vancouver Sun,
in collaboration with David H. Turpin, University of Victoria
and Geoff Plant, Heenan Blakie.

The year 2011 marks an unprecedented opportunity for political renewal in B.C., as both of the province's major political parties will choose new leaders. New leadership offers the potential for new ideas. And at a time when economic uncertainty means many British Columbians are worrying about jobs for themselves and prospects for their children, there is a compelling need for sound policy and a vision for the future.

As British Columbians, we need to use this moment to consider seriously the kind of society we wish to shape. To this end, we have a right to expect leadership aspirants to present clear and considered strategies for improving the social, economic, cultural and environmental well-being of our province and its citizens.

What strategies are required to meet this test? One thing is clear. In a globalized economy, new opportunities will increasingly be created through knowledge, creativity and innovation. Thus leadership candidates who wish to position B.C. for those opportunities will need to formulate policies that facilitate and encourage our province's leadership in the new economy.

Ironically, while there is justified concern about the rate of unemployment, the B.C. government's recently released workforce analysis shows that over the coming decade we will need to fill a million jobs. An ever-growing proportion of these jobs will require post-secondary education and training. With only 650,000 individuals currently in our education system, we clearly have a challenge.

If nothing changes, we may find that many of the jobs created in the new economy will go unfilled, while at the same time unemployment will increase for those who do not have post-secondary education. In short, we could face the situation former Seneca College president Rick Miner describes as "people without jobs and jobs without people".

However, along with this challenge there is a huge opportunity. If we can close the emerging skills gaps, we can both forge a stronger B.C. economy and reduce unemployment. This is a prospect that should appeal to leadership hopefuls of all political stripes.

Clearly a commitment to education, especially post-secondary education (PSE), must lie at the heart of such a strategy. To succeed, therefore, B.C. must strengthen its PSE system and work to increase participation rates, from trades training through to graduate studies and research. In particular, we suggest an agenda that includes three components.

The first is to achieve a dramatic improvement in the rate of transfer of students from high school to PSE.

That will have the additional benefit of greater inclusion of traditionally under-represented groups -- most notably aboriginal learners and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. While this has always been a desirable social goal, it is now also becoming an economic imperative.

Creating these opportunities will not be easy.

We must not forget that B.C. ranks seventh among the 10 provinces in the number of university degrees granted per capita -- up from last place a decade ago, but far below the position we should occupy.

Increasing the rate of participation in PSE will not alone be enough to meet the labour-market shortages that B.C. will soon confront as a result of our declining youth population and aging workforce.

The second thing we must do, therefore, is increase recruitment and retention of talented students from across Canada and around the world. In short, we need to bring bright students to B.C. and encourage them to stay here.

What better way to meet the needed levels of immigration than through our universities and colleges attracting promising new citizens? Educating the next generation of immigrants in Canada will serve to instil the practices and values of Canadian society. International students also enrich our campuses with global perspectives, enhancing the quality of the learning environment for everyone.

Those among them who do choose to return home help build a global network that advances the interests of British Columbia around the world.

Increasing PSE participation rates and recruiting out-of-province students will address part of our pending challenge.

However, for our new economy to reach its full potential a third initiative is required; namely, we need to ensure that the next generation of graduates learns in an environment that is alive with research and innovation.

The ideas and discoveries emanating from universities power our society and our economy.

This will be even more the case in the decades ahead.

By any number of measures, the quality of research in B.C. universities ranks near the top nationally.

Yet, on a per-population basis, our province ranks only fifth in terms of total federal granting-council funding.

Simply put, this means we have to expand research and knowledge-transfer activities at our research universities in order to position B.C. at the forefront of innovation and development in Canada.

As we do this, there is an opportunity for a whole new level of engagement between post-secondary institutions and society as a whole.

We need to strengthen connections between PSE institutions and the communities they serve, and foster a culture that is passionate about creating, sharing and developing knowledge and skills for social, economic, cultural and environmental betterment.

The potential of such a strategy is enormous, but its realization requires political will and leadership.

Many of B.C.'s past successes were enabled by policies that expanded the capacity of the PSE system. B.C. is reaping the rewards of these policies through an increased level of education among its citizens and an economy in better shape than many around the world.

Now is the time to look forward and ready ourselves for the next round of challenges and opportunities British Columbia faces.

As we assess the leadership hopefuls in the coming weeks, we urge British Columbians to consider how well they appreciate the central role that postsecondary education and research play in ensuring this province and its citizens enjoy a secure and prosperous future.

David H. Turpin is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Victoria; Andrew Petter is president and vice-chancellor of Simon Fraser University; Geoff Plant is a partner at Heenan Blaikie and author of Campus 2020.