Opinion: Let's make B.C. the Education Province

June 04, 2016

Op-ed article published in the Vancouver Sun

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

We are at risk of wasting our most precious resource.

This is no criticism of any particular sector. B.C.’s greatest resource wealth is not to be found in the ocean or in the province’s mines, forests or fossil fuels. It’s in our people. In the 21st century — when knowledge, skills and technological capacity can multiply the value of every product and commodity — competitive advantage rests primarily in a well-educated population.

For residents of a province that can credibly claim one of the best advanced education systems — in Canada and the world — that should be cause for celebration. But there is evidence that we are not utilizing that system to the extent we should. And that is cause for alarm.

Here’s why: B.C. is suffering from an educational deficit that is costing the province billions in lost economic opportunity, jobs and revenue.

That is the conclusion of Skills for Success: Developing Skills for a Prosperous B.C., a study released last year by the Conference Board of Canada. It noted that B.C. is not educating enough of its citizens to meet economic demand. The cost — in jobs unfilled and opportunities unrealized — amounts to $4.7 billion a year in foregone GDP, with an attendant shortfall in annual tax revenue of $616 million provincially and $775 million federally.

Worse still, the report concluded that “over 95,000 B.C. residents are not employed because they have not obtained a level of education adequate to meet current employers’ needs.”

While some of this educational shortfall is in trades and applied skills, the Conference Board found that “B.C. employers’ greatest needs are for employees with university degrees (57 per cent).”

In its Economic Scorecard released last month, the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade came to the same conclusion. Comparing us to our global competitors, the Board gave Metro Vancouver only a C grade for the percentage of residents 25 and over who have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Thankfully, given B.C.’s educational capacity, these trends are less a crisis than a wake-up call — an opportunity to turn need into advantage.

As one of the world’s top rating agencies confirmed last week, Canada’s university system stands with the top five in the world. And within Canada, B.C. leads the pack.

The Maclean’s ranking consistently places UBC among the country’s top three Medical-Doctoral schools, while Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria place at or near the top of the Comprehensive category. And the University of Northern British Columbia is rated as Canada’s best Primarily Undergraduate university.

We also boast excellent teaching universities in the mould of Kwantlen and Capilano. We have best-in-class colleges such as Langara and Douglas, and applied schools like Emily Carr and BCIT. Moreover, their interconnectivity allows students to move easily among these institutions to get the education they want and the training they need.

The challenge, then, is for us to leverage fully the remarkable foundation we have already built. This requires us to change the way we think about advanced education. Instead of calling upon universities and colleges merely to follow predetermined labour market demands, we need to empower our institutions to maximize our human potential so as to drive our economic future.

Our competitors in Asia and Europe are investing in education and research as a primary feature of their economic strategies. We must do the same.

A highly educated workforce can do more than meet current demands. It can energize the economy in all regions and all sectors. The knowledge, innovation and skills that enrich our cities and support our growing high-tech sector are also essential in strengthening regional economies and gaining the greatest value from our natural resources.

We have in our advanced education system a global opportunity. With an appropriate and prudent additional investment, we can distinguish B.C. as Canada’s ‘Education Province’ — one that fully realizes the potential of its people to generate value in the marketplace and to compete in the global economy.

That is our challenge and our opportunity.