Thar's gold in them thar hills (and downtown too)

January 18, 2011

Article in the Vancouver Sun

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor

It is the nightmare of all prospectors to bypass a rich vein of gold - to get close enough to touch their Eldorado only to miss it. Universities face a similar peril - that they will overlook the benefits to be gained through deeper commitments to community engagement.

There is no question that universities generate substantial value: in financial contributions; in increased workforce skills and earning capacities; and in social, economic and environmental benefits. Consider Simon Fraser University's impact in 2009-10: by spending alone, SFU injected almost $650 million into the economy of the Lower Mainland. Include what was spent by our students and you can add another $170 million.

The subsequent contributions of those students are even more important. A recent survey by Ontario's Higher Education Quality Council showed that university graduates earn 50 per cent more that those with a high school diploma -a measure that reflects both their increased value to society and the improvement in their quality of life. Last year the education premium earned by SFU graduates amounted to over $1 billion.

This educational dividend is critical to the economy. British Columbia's labour market analysis shows that, over the next decade, 77 per cent of the 1.1 million new job openings will require some post-secondary education, while only 67 per cent of current workers meet this standard. A skilled workforce isn't a luxury -it's a necessity.

The value of university research is harder to quantify. A draft report on the impact of SFU's research puts the figure near $1.5 billion a year. But this measures only economic benefits. It does not capture the value of better health care, climate-change mitigation and other social and environmental enhancements. Still, if you add up all of these components, our draft analysis shows that SFU boosts the Metro Vancouver economy by $3.4 billion annually. This is a substantial contribution, but is it enough?

SFU's answer has been an unequivocal "no." In order to get the mother-lode off the mountain, SFU has taken the position there is more that we can and should do to transmit our knowledge and ideas to the communities we serve. That is why SFU has made community engagement a priority. And the evidence shows that this focus is paying major dividends both for our region and for the university.

SFU's expanding downtown campus has become, to quote this newspaper, the "intellectual heart" of Vancouver. In 2009, SFU won an IPAC/Deloitte's gold award in public sector leadership for its efforts to restore economic and social health to the Downtown Eastside and to bring educational opportunities and urban renewal to Surrey. "In both cases," said the citation, "SFU's arrival has turned around the fortunes of struggling communities and set the stage for new levels of university-stakeholder partnerships that enhance the region's ability to support growing knowledge-based economies with a highly trained workforce".

There is also evidence that the economic benefits of research are hugely increased when universities promote and nurture its application within the community. When assessing the impacts of stimulus money, the U.S. Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration found that it got a 30-to-1 return in tax revenue for every dollar spent through business incubators like TIME Venture at SFU's Vancouver campus. Generating a single job on a water or sewer project cost between $2,900 and $6,900; while jobs created through university-based incubators cost between $144 and $216 -and those positions were much more likely to last.

A similar multiplier almost certainly applies to non-economic values. These include the community benefits that flow from community-based research initiatives and from experiential learning programs. They also include the social capital gained from public lectures, artistic performances and continuing studies programs, as well as from university-led dialogue and deliberation on issues of public policy.

While such contributions take time and resources, universities also benefit significantly. Community engagement makes SFU a better university. It stimulates our students and it inspires our researchers and teachers. And it thereby helps to define us as an institution that is student-centred and research-driven, as well as being connected to the communities we serve.

That's why we at SFU are determined to do more. With an eye to building on this success, we will soon be launching a strategic visioning process called "envision SFU."

Through this process, we will invite the community to tell us what we should do next to extract further value from this vein of gold.