Invest in Education

January 27, 2012

The Vancouver Sun Op-ed

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor

Canada is more than a pretty place.  It is more than a treasure trove of natural resources, more even than one of the world’s most advanced democracies.  It is, in the words of a recent U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) report, “a mature, high-performing science and technology establishment.”

In short, Canada is a country of smart, well-educated folks who manage their affairs well at home and compete successfully abroad.  It is no accident that we consistently rank highly for standard of living and quality of life: we have the social structures and – most importantly – the educational resources to make the most of what we have.

But this is not grounds for complacency.  Canada once had a global advantage merely because of its high literacy rate.  Like the U.S., some of our principal exports were low-wage, low-skill jobs – the kind of work Canadians didn’t want to do.

But as the NSF notes, other countries – particularly the “Asian 8” (India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand) – are changing the rules. They are investing heavily in education, especially advanced education, enabling them to seize economic opportunities that North Americans once considered inexorably ours.

Consider that between 1996 and 2009, North America’s share of global research and development fell from 40 to 36 per cent, while the Asian 8’s rose from 24 to 31 per cent. Consider that during the same period the U.S. exported 28 per cent of its high-tech manufacturing jobs.

The “developing world” is developing capacity. While Canada boasts 240,000 university graduates a year, placing us fifth in the world on a per capita basis, China, once synonymous with unskilled labour and inferior goods, now produces six million.

At post-graduate levels – where most innovation occurs – the picture is worse. Canada conferred fewer than 5,000 PhDs in 2007, a performance that the Conference Board of Canada rates dead last among our 17 closest competitors. On a per capita basis, Finland and Sweden both educate three times as many.  China, meanwhile, produces 50,000 PhDs annually, while India graduates nearly 10,000 in science and technology alone, and plans to double that number by 2020.

Our biggest trading partner is also losing ground. Once unequalled in advanced education, the U.S. has fallen to second place in natural sciences and engineering:  China produces 26,000 such PhDs a year – 1,500 more than the U.S.

So, we in B.C. and Canada have two challenges – and one huge opportunity.  First, we must guarantee a sufficient supply of skilled workers to sustain our current economy. As the BC Business Council reported recently, three-quarters of job openings in this decade will require post-secondary training; with a university degree necessary for 34 per cent.

Second, we must invest adequately to keep B.C. competitive and to equip future generations to succeed.  We certainly have the intellectual horsepower.  B.C. has a diverse post-secondary education system with three universities ranked in the top 250 in the world.  Maclean’s, which consistently praises the University of B.C. in the “medical-doctoral” category, rates SFU and the University of Victoria as the two best “comprehensive” universities in Canada; with the University of Northern B.C. among the top three “primarily undergraduate” institutions. B.C. is doing something right. We just need to do more.

This may seem a tall order in tough economic times. The B.C. and Canadian governments are rightfully wary of debt and taxes. But as former U.S. Trade Secretary Robert Reich points out, raising debt for educational infrastructure is not a matter of borrowing from our children, it’s an investment in their future – one on which their well-being depends.

If we fail to invest in the human capital, research capacity and knowledge infrastructure needed to compete in the global economy, our standard of living will suffer, our children’s future will deteriorate, and our fiscal challenges will grow ever worse.  If we make these investments, we can strengthen our economy even as we address societal needs.

That is why SFU has committed to being an “engaged university” – one that supports and enriches communities in every possible way. SFU students are involved in community co-op and service learning initiatives. SFU researchers are immersed in everything from solving social problems and tackling environmental concerns, to developing the new ideas and innovations that will keep Canada’s economy at the global forefront.

SFU also has leveraged its infrastructure spending and cultural capacities to revive and inspire the communities we serve:  revitalizing and enriching downtown Vancouver; catalysing development in Surrey’s new City Centre; and creating a model sustainable community on Burnaby Mountain.

This is our opportunity.  This can be Canada’s time.  B.C. can be “the education province.”  Building an economy based on education and research, we can make the most of our bounty and lead the world.

We need only leaders with the vision and determination to make it so.