President’s Address at SFU’s 5th Annual Diwali Gala

November 08, 2012

Crown Palace Banquet Hall
Surrey, British Columbia

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor

It’s great to be here for SFU’s 5th annual Diwali celebration.

This event is special in that it exemplifies SFU’s commitment to being “Canada’s most community-engaged research university,” even as it highlights the value we attach to our relationship with the South Asian community.

That same commitment is reflected in SFU’s India Strategy.  A first amongst Canadian universities, SFU launched that strategy in 2006, to open up opportunities in India for SFU and its partners, and to strengthen our engagement with Metro Vancouver’s dynamic South Asian community.

The Strategy does this in a number of ways, including:

•    helping our students to work, study and volunteer in India;
•    attracting Indian students to SFU;
•    bringing Indian scholars and business people to BC; and
•    supporting research and commercial relationships between Canada and India.

I have been pleased to work with many in this room in advancing these goals, including travelling to India last year on a visit that was both informative and productive.  

Let me share four examples of the Strategies’ success:

First, just this week in New Delhi, SFU signed an MOU with TERI University, a leading Indian educational and research institute specializing in energy, environment and sustainable development. The MOU will facilitate student exchanges, as well as joint academic and research programs.

Second, through our five-year-old BC-India Mobility Initiative, we have placed 100 students in India, in projects and activities that advance B.C.’s interests in areas such as clean energy, new media, film and life science.

I’d like to credit the Initiative’s director, Nav Chima, and express our gratitude for funding support from Western Economic Diversification Canada, from members of SFU’s India Advisory Council, and from events like this.

Some of these students are here tonight.  I encourage you to speak with these amazing young people about their experiences.  That, more anything I can say, will convince you of the value and impact of this program.
Third amongst the India Strategy benefits:  SFU has hosted three industry events and organized 12 visits from Indian scholars and executives representing the clean energy and film sectors.

Fourth, SFU has recently become the first university in western Canada to join the Infosys InStep Program for post-secondary internships.  Special thanks to Haroon Rashid for helping facilitate this arrangement!

SFU has also worked actively to advance and promote understanding in BC of South Asian history and culture.

Last year for example, we launched an interactive website and digital archive chronicling the 1914 Komagata Maru incident.  

This remarkable project was led by SFU’s Library, facilitated by community members and supported by a grant from Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

This past year, we also hosted the second Indian Summer Festival – a celebration of South Asian music, literature, film, visual arts, cuisine, yoga and dance.

And, speaking of dance, SFU is the only university in Canada I know that has offered a credit course in Bhangra dance.  

We are also proud this past year to have awarded honorary degrees to South Asian community leader, Jack Uppal, and to the former President of India, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.
I would like to acknowledge the friends and supporters who have helped us promote engagement with the South Asian community and advance the India Strategy.  

I also want to thank Joanne Curry, Executive Director of SFU Surrey, for managing the Advisory Council’s secretariat and keeping SFU engaged with this region’s diverse and dynamic communities.  

Of course, the most important way in which SFU serves the South Asian community is through the education we provide to your youth.  

Because you know, as I know, that post-secondary education is the key to unlocking the next generation’s potential.  It is the ladder of opportunity to a better life – and the foundation for a stronger, more inclusive society.

For generations this central truth about education has always been central to the immigrant experience in Canada.  I see that every day when I speak with students from first, second and third generation Canadian families.

The extraordinary value these students and their families place on education reminds me how lucky we are to live in a country where a university or college degree is within reach of so many.  It’s a gift and something we should never take for granted.

That’s truer today than ever before.  Let me just give you one quick statistic that explains why: by 2020, 80 per cent of all new jobs in BC will require a post-secondary degree. Eighty per cent!

What does that mean?  Quite simply, it means we are going to have to educate a lot more British Columbians.  And to do that, we have to address some significant challenges – head on.  Let me point to just three.

Right now, SFU and other BC universities are having to turn away qualified undergraduate and graduate students due to a lack of funded spaces.  Nowhere is this more evident than at SFU Surrey, where today we are forced to turn away more than twice as many qualified applicants as we did in 2007.

If the first challenge is access, the second is affordability:  I know how hard many parents and students work to afford a university degree.  Many SFU students head to classes after a job – or head to a job after classes.

Yet many still leave university with record levels of debt.  Others don’t apply for fear that they or their parents can’t afford it.  That’s not good for our youth, and it’s not good for our economy.    

Which brings us to the third challenge:  In today’s economy, ideas drive growth.  That, after all, is why it’s called a “knowledge economy.”  

But good ideas don’t just happen; they’re the result of good research.  Many of the best new jobs and job-producing industries come straight from the laboratories and libraries at BC’s universities.

But given the resources that other countries are throwing into research and development, it’s clear that we, in Canada and in B.C., are not investing enough.

In response to these challenges, the presidents of BC’s research universities have launched what we’re calling an Opportunity Agenda, appealing for public and government support on three critical goals.

First, there should be a place in B.C.’s post-secondary system for every qualified student.  If our daughters and sons work hard and get good grades, they deserve that opportunity.  And we can’t afford to waste their potential.

Second, no qualified student should be denied an education because of their financial circumstances.

And third, in a world where knowledge and ideas drive social progress and economic prosperity, BC must stay ahead of the curve by investing in cutting-edge research and innovation.

1.    A space for every qualified BC student;
2.    A guarantee for students in need; and
3.    A commitment to innovation and jobs.

I hope that you will help us to achieve these goals so that, together, we can fulfill our commitment to your sons and daughters.  A commitment to opening up the educational doors and opportunities they require to make the most of their lives and to fulfill their dreams.  A commitment to giving them the knowledge and tools our Province requires to compete in the world economy, and to stay vibrant and prosperous in the years ahead.