BC losing ground in knowledge economy race

December 20, 2012

Op-ed submitted to the Vancouver Sun
Edited version available online

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor

The proposed takeover by the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) of Nexen has triggered discussion about the dangers of Chinese investment to Canada’s social and economic security.  But the greater threat may be that China and its neighbours will simply outsmart us.  What these countries are investing at home, on education and research, could pose greater risks to our economy and quality of life than any amounts they are likely to invest here.

On a recent trip to Beijing and Hong Kong, I saw first-hand how Chinese investments in knowledge and ideas are fuelling its economic dominance.  At the Communication University of China in Beijing, I met with the president in a brand new administration facility, after which I visited their expanded media museum in another sparkling new complex.  The following day, I toured the fabulous new library at Renmin University, before walking across a campus dotted with construction cranes and hearing their plans for a new satellite campus outside the city.

In Hong Kong, I saw City University’s impressive new media facility and toured the modern residences at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Even the older structures at these universities have been renovated and upgraded, showing few signs of the wear and tear we see at BC university campuses.

If the building boom is impressive, the growth in China’s educational and research capacity is even more so.  All of the universities I visited reported having significant infusions of government funding with which to enrich their research programs and educational offerings, particularly at the graduate level.

In this context, one begins to understand why Asia’s universities are surging up the list of leading international universities.  For example, while SFU is proud to be rated 25th in the QS World University Rankings of the best universities under 50 years of age, City University and the Chinese University in Hong Kong are ranked 10th and 1st respectively. Indeed, seven of the top ten leading younger universities are from Asia.

This is no accident.  As Chinese University of Hong Kong Provost Benjamin Wah told the Times Higher Education unit, Asian governments have come to regard post-secondary education and research as critical keys to social and economic development. “Although (Asia’s) economic prosperity was originally fuelled by inexpensive labour in low-end manufacturing, rising labour costs and other socio-economic forces have driven these countries from pure manufacturing to the creation of new ideas and innovation, in order to stay competitive,” says Wah.  “These forces have led to significant investments in higher education and research.

The strategy is paying off – big time.   Jobs that were once the predominant preserve of North American and European workers are now relocating to Asia.  And Asian countries are fast becoming leaders in developing new products, technologies and innovations, and are reaping the financial rewards.

While other developed countries are struggling to keep pace with these investments, Canada and the U.S. are falling behind, with obvious results. While Northern European countries boast university participation rates in the top 10, Canada is 21st – behind developing economies like Slovenia and Portugal.  In a single generation, Canada has slipped from 6th to 15th in the world in university attainment rates

If we hope to maintain a strong economy and high quality of life, Canadian governments must wake up to this challenge.  In British Columbia, the Research Universities’ Council recently presented the B.C. government with an Opportunity Agenda, our best estimate of the kinds of post-secondary investments that are necessary to enable our young people to realize their full potential and to keep our province competitive in the global knowledge economy.

There are three elements. We need to provide: enough post-secondary spaces for every qualified student; and enough money that we are not turning away bright students whose parents can’t afford the rising costs. And we must invest at a competitive rate in research and innovation.

We dare not forget that Canada’s most important asset is its people.  Whatever the fate of our natural resources, we won’t be able to defend our economy or maintain our quality of life if we fail to nurture and enrich our human resources. Based on what I witnessed in China, the time to reinvest in post-secondary education and research has never been more pressing.