Staying Ahead in the Knowledge Economy: SFU and the Opportunity Agenda for BC

April 04, 2013

Presentation to the Vancouver Board of Trade
Sutton Place Hotel, Vancouver 

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor

Thank you.  It’s a pleasure to speak at the Vancouver Board of Trade.

I would also like to thank McCarthy Tetrault as today’s presenting sponsor.   

It’s great to see so many of you here.  Given that I have proposed to speak about the opportunity BC has to stay ahead in the knowledge economy, your presence suggests – even before I begin – that you get it.

You understand the social and economic importance of having a strong and effective post-secondary education system.

That could suggest that I’m wasting my time preaching to the converted.  But I don’t see it that way.  Rather, I believe that you are the ideal audience for the message I have in mind.

Because today I hope to convince you to translate your understanding into advocacy.  I plan to encourage you not only to support, but also to champion the measures required to ensure opportunities for our young people – and health for our economy.

In the process, I will introduce you to an exemplary SFU student.  His name is Michael Cheng, and while you might not have heard of him before, I’m confident that, in the future, you’ll be saying to your friends: “Oh, I’ve known about Michael Cheng for years. I heard him speak at the Board of Trade when he was only 22.”

But first, let’s consider the situation facing British Columbia today. 

Due to an aging society and a demanding economy, we are on the brink of a dramatic and escalating skills deficit.

The BC labour market analysis shows that while 78 per cent of all new jobs require some post-secondary training, fewer than 67 per cent of British Columbians currently have those credentials.

If we don’t do something to address this deficit, by 2020 nearly 19,000 jobs will go unfilled for lack of qualified applicants.

And this will occur even as a growing number of British Columbians face un- or under-employment.

It’s the future that education expert Rick Miner describes as: “People Without Jobs; [and] Jobs Without People”

There is an answer to this dilemma, one that the Research Universities of BC have presented as an Opportunity Agenda for BC.  That Agenda has 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 pillar seems obvious.  With four-fifths of new jobs requiring post-secondary education, we’ve got to stop turning away students who are qualified and committed to doing the work.

Yet that’s what’s happening at SFU.  Five or six years ago, a high school graduate with a 75 per cent average could be assured admittance to most of our faculties.

Now, with no growth in funded spaces for four years, 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, the Opportunity Agenda calls for an increase of 11,000 post-secondary spaces over the next four years.

These are not limited to university spaces – 4,000 are college and trades spaces at institutions like VCC and BCIT.  But I want to stress the importance of the university case.

There’s a myth circulating about people who have university credentials.

Every time a columnist runs into a literate barista, we are treated to an article about university graduates who can’t get jobs.

This makes for a good story – provided we recognize it as fiction.

Statistics Canada data shows that, within five years of leaving school, university graduates enjoy the lowest unemployment, have the highest incomes and are most likely to be working in areas related to their fields of study.

This is no accident.  In today’s dynamic and demanding work-world, good jobs increasingly require workers who are able to think critically, write cogently, research effectively, solve problems proficiently, and have a propensity to learn.

These abilities are enduring and transferable. They address the needs for agility and adaptability in a labour market in which many of tomorrow’s jobs do not exist today, and many of today’s jobs will not exist tomorrow.

The traditional foundation for such skills was a “liberal arts” education – comprising a broad range of courses from which students could gain a well-rounded education.

Today’s best universities still offer these opportunities, but we don’t leave as much to chance.

Almost half of today’s university students also participate in experiential learning programs such as co-op placements or internships.  Many others receive training in entrepreneurship and other work-related aptitudes.

These are students who will walk through the door of their first employer with a high degree of social knowledge and practical skills. 

This is not an argument against trades and other applied training.  BC’s labour market outlook shows that, by 2020, we risk a shortfall of 8,100 college graduates.  Institutions such as BCIT and VCC need added capacity to meet this demand. 

But, looking at the market for university graduates, there’s a greater shortfall of 8,400.  We require even more university spaces – for our kids today and your workers tomorrow.

So, that’s pillar number one of the Opportunity Agenda – 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 and their families, the financial costs are just too great.

We need to address this barrier – for their sake and the sake of a functioning economy.

The Opportunity Agenda proposes this simple guarantee … that:  Every qualified student can attend a university, college, or institute regardless of financial circumstances.

To this end it recommends that we:

  • reinstitute up-front grants to make university affordable for students of limited means;
  • secure the loan-rate reduction program to reduce the burden for students who graduate with huge debts; and
  • establish competitive graduate scholarships to keep our best grad students and their ideas here in BC.

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

The third pillar speaks more directly to economic stimulus – or perhaps I should say to economic survival.

I was amazed last year when I visited a series of universities in Beijing, Taipei and Hong Kong.

Everywhere, I encountered evidence of huge and growing investments in education and research.  On one level, that is incredibly positive – for them and for us. Everyone gains when universities, anywhere in the world, advance the state of human knowledge and understanding.

On another level, however, it brought home to me how quickly North America is losing ground.  As a recent U.S. National Science Foundation report shows, between 1996 and 2009, North America’s share of global R&D fell from 40 to 36 per cent, while that of eight leading Asian countries rose from 24 to 31 per cent.

As a result, 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 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 also lags. We conferred fewer than 5,000 PhDs in 2007, a performance that the Conference Board of Canada rated dead last amongst Canada’s 17 closest competitors.

We can’t hope to excel in the global knowledge economy if we allow ourselves to underperform in both education and innovation.

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

It you want a sense of the economic benefits of that capacity, let me give you a recent example from each of our three campuses.

One of SFU’s most advanced innovation facilities is 4D Labs – a materials science research centre that opened in 2007 on our Burnaby campus with support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the BC Knowledge Development Fund.

4D Labs has 4700 square feet of processing space – loaded with lasers, high-res microscopes, and micro-fabrication facilities. It’s a mecca all manner of materials science research.

The four ‘D’s stand for Design, Development, Demonstration and, my favourite, Delivery. We work with industry to bring great ideas to the marketplace.

This lab – and the incredible talent it has attracted – recently enabled us to secure an additional $7.7 million in federal funding for the Prometheus Project.

Prometheus is led by Neil Branda, founder of Switch Materials, a local start-up company that currently boasts 30 employees.

The Project works two ways, assisting SFU to commercialize faculty research, while helping private-sector companies solve problems and develop new develop technologies.

The Prometheus team already has a network of more than 25 private-sector partners whom it’s developing energy, biomedical and quantum computing innovations.

A second strategic research investment is SFU’s recent partnership with the Province, Surrey Memorial Hospital Foundation and Fraser Health to bring Dr. Ryan D’Arcy to Surrey as B.C. Leadership Chair in Multimodal Technology for Healthcare Innovation.

Ryan is one of those world-changing researchers whose enthusiasm, intelligence, and entrepreneurship are helping to make huge leaps in our understanding of brain injury and illness. 

His research has the potential not only to produce better care at reduced costs but, as he wrote recently in the Vancouver Sun, to “bring unprecedented economic value to Surrey by positioning the city as a leader in providing solutions to our critically important health care issues.”

My third example is the launch last month by our Beedie School of Business of a social innovation centre in downtown Vancouver.  It’s called RADIUS – which stands for “Radical Ideas, Useful to Society.”

RADIUS is designed to incubate and implement projects to address social issues. Specifically, it will address what its chair and co-founder David Dunne calls “wicked problems,” the ones in business and society that are critical, chronic and have no clear start or end point.

It also creates a new experiential education program for students.  In Dunne’s words:  “Instead of solving pre-digested cases, RADIUS students will encounter the messy real world, coming up with creative solutions and then moving them to implementation. We are helping not just to ask the right questions, but to then turn the answers nto viable, high-impact social ventures.”

These are the kind of initiatives that can transform B.C.’s economy. These are the kinds of opportunities that we cannot afford to pass up.

For the sake of BC’s future, we need to ensure that our youth are equipped to fill tomorrow’s jobs … and that our businesses are prepared to compete in tomorrow’s economy.

That’s what the Opportunity Agenda is all about – ensuring:

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

This is the minimum that our young people and our businesses should expect.  It’s an investment that we can’t afford not to make.

Earlier, I spoke to you about university graduates who are knowledgeable and adaptable, and who are equipped to be both good citizens and savvy entrepreneurs.

I would like now to introduce you to an SFU student who is at once typical and exemplary.  His name is Michael Cheng.

Michael began as a general Arts student before gravitating to our School of Interactive Arts and Technology where he found his passion as an innovator and entrepreneur.

At age 22, he has already started 11 businesses, ranging from an automotive buy-and-sell service to an outlet for self-tightening shoelaces.  

Selected by the Surrey Board of Trade as one of their Top 25 Under 25, he was also named SFU’s 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year.  Recently, Michael was chosen to be one of Canada’s Next 36 student entrepreneurs, joining a group that will receive $80,000 in seed funding to launch a high-impact venture – with mentoring from top North American CEOs and academic advisors.

It’s my pleasure to introduce Michael Cheng.

[Remarks by Michael Cheng]

Thank you Michael.

I hope this remarkable young man has given you a taste of what I see every day at SFU:  a world of potential.

I hope, as well, that his example inspires you – as it inspires me –to press for action. 

Never has there been a better or a more urgent time to invest in our youth and our future.

We are at a tipping point.

If we fail to act, not only do we deny young people the opportunities they need and deserve.  We also disadvantage our province and limit its potential.  

On the other hand, if we invest in education and research, we stand a good chance of making British Columbia a knowledge leader to rival the best in the world.

Think about it: our geography; our diversity; our entrepreneurial energy.  Where else does this incredible combination exist?

We can lead the way.  We can chart a course that taps the knowledge, ingenuity and skills of every British Columbian.

Because in today’s world, these are our most important attributes – the things we need to succeed in a global economy driven by ever-quickening uncertainty and change.

That’s what the Opportunity Agenda is all about.  And that’s why I’m here today – to seek your help in pressing our representatives and leaders to commit themselves to our most valuable resource – our children and our ideas.

Let us help them see what the evidence so clearly shows:  That with one strategy, we can transform two challenges – a lack of educational capacity and a looming skills shortage – into a single strength – a well-educated workforce capable of driving a strong economy and out-competing the world.