An Opportunity Agenda for Surrey

March 20, 2013

Presentation to the Surrey Board of Trade

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor

Thank you.  It’s great to be here.  And a personal thank you to CEO Anita Huberman, President Jim Mihaly and your Board of Directors.

The relationship SFU enjoys with Surrey, and especially with the Surrey business community, is one of the things that keep me optimistic – for the future of the university, Surrey and the whole region.

Your vision and commitment helped to establish SFU Surrey, and your continuing support has been key to our success to date.

It’s now critical to our shared objectives that we redouble our efforts.  We need to work together to ensure that Surrey’s young people achieve their dreams – and that this community realizes its full social and economic potential.

In 2011, in my first presentation to you as SFU President, I spoke of the possibility of Surrey becoming Silicon Valley North.

Now that’s an ambitious vision.  Even if we don’t actually displace the other Silicon Valley, it implies that we will establish Surrey as a world-leading centre for high-tech research and development.

You might reasonably ask, as some did at the time: “Can we do that? Can we deliver?”  Today, I am more confident than ever that we can.

In the past two years, SFU has completed a $10-million enhancement of our Surrey campus, including our first science teaching labs, as well as labs for research in areas ranging from gerontology to kinesiology to criminology.

We have inaugurated Environment One, a rigorous program to equip students with knowledge of the scientific, social and economic conditions that sometimes seem to make environmental issues insoluble.

We have graduated the first classes in SFU’s innovative Mechatronics Systems Engineering program.

We have advanced our efforts with the City, BC Hydro and Powertech Labs to develop a Surrey platform for clean energy engineering.

In that category, just last month we celebrated the announcement of $4.5 million in new funding for a clean-energy research project led by Mechatronics professor Mahjid Bahrami – almost $3 million of which will come from the private sector.  This builds on two prior investments in 2012 from Automotive Partnerships Canada, worth $13M.

Combined with other funding received over the past three years, this support has enabled our Mechatronics program to enrich the training of 100 highly qualified students per year.

Last year, we also welcomed Fraser Health to Surrey City Centre as a neighbour and strategic partner.

And, together with the Province and Surrey Memorial Hospital Foundation, Fraser Health partnered with us in bringing to Surrey Dr. Ryan D’Arcy, our new B.C. Leadership Chair in Multimodal Technology for Healthcare Innovation.

If you’ve met him, you already know that Ryan is one of those world-changing researchers.  His enthusiasm, intelligence, and entrepreneurship are helping to make huge leaps in our understanding of brain injury and illness.  And his presence has the potential to make Surrey a leader in the research and development of medical technologies.

Let me share with you what he recently wrote in the Vancouver Sun:

“With a focus on health technologies, Surrey’s competitive edge comes from fully integrating advanced research capabilities from universities like Simon Fraser…, with the front-line medical expertise of Surrey Memorial … and the Fraser Health region. This health care impact model … supports a wide array of business opportunities, from commercialization of new technologies to exporting best practices in health care innovation. Not only can technology be utilized to bring better care at reduced costs, but it can bring unprecedented economic value to Surrey by positioning the city as a leader in providing solutions to our critically important health care issues.”

So I say “yes.”  With partnerships like those forged between SFU and the City of Surrey; Fraser Health; and the Surrey business community, with the relationships we have formed with other post-secondary institutions like Kwantlen Polytechnic University and Douglas College, Silicon Valley North is an ambition well within our reach.

But to achieve this, there’s no question that we need the support – and engagement – of senior levels of government.

The Surrey Board of Trade understands this with a clarity that is startling and impressive.  In recent years, you have produced two reports outlining the challenge – and opportunity – for post-secondary education south of the Fraser.

The title page of your most recent report says it all: “Education Today; Productivity Tomorrow.”   It documents what most of us already know:

  • that Surrey is the fastest growing jurisdiction in B.C.;
  • that Surrey is producing the largest proportion of high school graduates; and
  • that Surrey’s access to post-secondary spaces is roughly one-quarter the provincial average and, with its south-of-the-Fraser neighbours, the worst in Metro Vancouver.

Little surprise, then, that general education levels lag behind other municipalities in the region.  And, as your report demonstrates, the lack of post-secondary seats is a major obstacle to Surrey catching up.

I was also impressed by your report’s grasp of the economic implications of this situation. The authors point out that, while 78 per cent of new jobs in the next decade will require post-secondary training, only 61 per cent of Surrey residents currently enjoy this level of education.

So it’s clear: Education Today; Productivity Tomorrow.  And the opposite is also true:  If there’s no education today, the negative consequences will go beyond the disappointment of thousands of Surrey young people who will wind up un- or under-employed – even while good jobs go vacant for lack of qualified talent.  If there are insufficient educational opportunities for young people, not only Surrey’s, but economy of the province will suffer.

Again, the Surrey Board of Trade gets it. You have called for an increase in the number of full-time post-secondary spaces of 3,000 per year, every year, until 2025.

Obviously, I have nothing to teach you when it comes to being ambitious.  But you can take comfort in knowing that there are others who recognize the importance of your leadership and who share your ambitions.

The Research Universities of B.C., including SFU, have initiated a similar call to action – we call it an Opportunity Agenda for BC.

That Agenda is based on three pillars:

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

The first point should be obvious. With four-fifths of new jobs requiring post-secondary education, we must stop turning away students who are qualified and willing to do the work.

This is a particularly pressing problem in Surrey. As your report shows, high schools in this region produce one out of every three graduates in this province. One out of three!

But the number of university spaces south of the Fraser is a third less than the provincial average.

And the problem is getting worse.  Five or six years ago, a Surrey high school student who graduated with a 75 per cent average could be assured admittance to most SFU faculties.

Now, increasing student demand has driven our average entry grade to over 85 per cent.  As a result, we’re turning away thousands of academically qualified students.

That’s a terrible waste of talent and potential!

Accordingly, our Opportunity Agenda calls for an increase of 11,000 post-secondary spaces over the next four years.

Those seats would be spread amongst universities, colleges, institutes in the province spanning trades training to graduate studies, and given the demands in this region, I would expect a substantial number to come to institutions like SFU, KPU and Douglas College.

It isn’t enough.  It isn’t as ambitious as your target and it won’t solve every problem.  But it’s a start.

And for many bright young people in Surrey, it will mean the difference between getting – and not getting – a university degree or other post-secondary credential.  The difference between having the opportunity to succeed – and having that opportunity denied.

So, that’s pillar number one:  a space for every qualified student.

But we need to go further. We need to address affordability.

Parents work hard to save for their children’s future.  And students do as well.  Many SFU students work at two or more jobs to make ends meet.

The tuition they pay goes directly to improving the quality of their education. But for some students, the financial cost is just too great.

As your report shows, that cost is magnified for students in Surrey where there are too few post-secondary spaces close to home.

The Opportunity Agenda proposes that we work together to provide a simple guarantee – that “Every qualified student can attend a university, college, or institute regardless of financial circumstances.”

That means reinstituting an up-front grant program to make university affordable for students with limited means.

It means securing the loan-rate reduction program to reduce the burden on students who graduate with large debt loads.

And it means establishing a graduate scholarship program to retain our best grad students and their ideas here in BC.

Most importantly, it means that more young people in Surrey will be able to benefit from post-secondary education … and to give back to this community.

That doesn’t just help low-income students, it helps us all.  Because in an increasingly competitive global economy, we can’t afford to waste the energies and talents of a single person.

So that’s pillar number two:  a guarantee for students in need.

The Opportunity Agenda’s third pillar speaks even more directly to Surrey’s future as Silicon Valley North.

I had a dramatic wake-up call last year when I visited a series of top universities in Beijing and Hong Kong.  Everywhere I went, there was evidence of the huge public investments being made in education and research.

That is, on most fronts, incredibly positive – for them and for us. Everyone gains when universities, anywhere in the world, advance the state of human knowledge and understanding.

But while Asia is investing, we in North America are falling behind:  A recent U.S. National Science Foundation report shows that, between 1996 and 2009, North America’s share of global research and development fell from 40 to 36 per cent. 

And that is costing us jobs.  During the same period – basically the last 15 years – the U.S. exported 28 per cent of its high-tech manufacturing jobs; and fell behind China as the world’s leading trading economy.

The situation is even worse in Canada, which underperforms the U.S. in R&D.

As for graduate students – those highly qualified individuals who deliver cutting edge research and innovation – Canada again lags behind. We conferred fewer than 5,000 PhDs in 2007, a performance that the Conference Board of Canada rated dead last among Canada’s 17 closest competitors.

We can’t hope to compete in the global knowledge economy with this kind of disadvantage.

The Opportunity Agenda calls for us to establish Innovate BC, bringing together government, business, and post-secondary institutions to build our research potential.

Three pillars – one strategy:

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

The Opportunity Agenda will unlock the potential – the human and research capacity – we need in Surrey to fuel the next generation of innovation and growth.

But the future is not found – it’s made.  And we can only make this happen if we work together.

The foresight of a previous generation built a new university atop Burnaby Mountain.  And the foresight of a recent generation brought that university down from that mountain and into this community – contributing to the revitalization of Surrey City Centre and creating new opportunities for thousands of residents.

Now it’s up to us to build on that vision.

We are at a tipping point. If we fail to act, we deny our young people the opportunities they need and deserve.  We disadvantage our community and hobble its future.

On the other hand, if we invest in education and research, we have a real chance of making Surrey a centre for knowledge and innovation to rival the best in the world.

The Surrey business community is already out front on this vision.  So is the City of Surrey.  I commend both for your tremendous leadership.  Please, stay the course. 

The stakes are high – for Surrey and for our province.  So let’s resolve to keep working together.

Let’s resolve to continue to press our provincial and federal representatives and leaders to invest in our most important resource – our children – here in Surrey and through BC.

Let’s help them to see what we so clearly see:  That this strategy can transform two challenges – a lack of educational capacity and a looming skills shortage – into a single strength – an educated workforce capable of driving a dynamic economy and out-competing the world.

If we do this, I have every confidence that Surrey will realize its ambitions.  With your help, with your continued leadership, we can, indeed, forge a future for Surrey as a Silicon Valley North.

Thank you for your attention.