Opinion: B.C. needs to harness the power of education

August 26, 2017

Op-ed published in the Vancouver Sun

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

One of the challenges facing a new administration is to find the time and focus to seize upon great opportunities while contending with the day-to-day pressures of governing. Fortunately for B.C.’s new government, this province’s advanced education system provides just such an opportunity, which, if nurtured and deployed, can form the basis of a potent economic strategy to drive sustainable growth and prosperity for the benefit of all British Columbians.

This opportunity is founded upon an understanding that knowledge is the greatest asset in a modern economy, and that advanced education must therefore play a major role in meeting this province’s economic needs.

It also arises from the fact that, despite receiving less-than-average provincial support, B.C.’s network of universities, institutes and colleges is the envy of the country. The University of British Columbia ranks in the top 50 research universities in the world; Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria are first and third in Maclean’s ranking of Canadian comprehensive universities (research institutions without medical schools); and the University of Northern B.C. ranks number one in the Primarily Undergraduate category.

There is similar strength in B.C.’s other post-secondary institutions, including Canadian leaders such as the B.C. Institute of Technology, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, and an impressive province-wide constellation of teaching universities and colleges.

Yet while B.C.’s post-secondary system is strong and diverse, it has not been fully valued or utilized. Government in recent years appears to have viewed advanced education as a follower rather than a driver of economic development, looking upon the system to address predestined labour market demands rather than to create new economic opportunities.

Even in this capacity, provincial investments in post-secondary education have fallen short, resulting in a talent deficit that is stifling economic growth and denying citizens, particularly young people, opportunities to achieve their full potential. In two recent studies, the Conference Board of Canada found that B.C.’s talent deficit is preventing businesses across the province from addressing current needs and seizing future opportunities – costing our economy $7.9 billion in lost GDP and denying governments $1.8 billion in foregone tax revenues. Worse, the conference board estimates that 120,000 B.C. residents are unemployed because they lack access to relevant post-secondary education.

In our modern economy, in which 75 per cent of new jobs require some form of post-secondary education, the conference board projects that B.C. is on track to train fewer than half the nearly one million skilled workers who will be needed over the next decade.

Concerns for B.C.’s talent deficit are widely shared. The B.C. Business Council recently called upon government to double the number of funded graduate student seats at B.C. universities. And the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade’s Economic Scorecard gave this region a ‘C’ grade for the relatively low number of people who have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

By rationing access to education, we devalue our most precious natural resource — a generation of young people and others who need this level of attainment. In a tech-savvy world, even traditional resource industries require highly skilled workers to develop resources efficiently, transport and process them sustainably, and maximize their value. Tying resource value exclusively to its embedded worth puts our economy at the mercy of global forces beyond our control. In the resource sector, as in others, it is human capital that enables us to set our own course and determine our own destiny.

Here then lies the opportunity for government to harness advanced education as a central feature of our province’s economic strategy. The goal should be to establish B.C. as Canada’s education province and a world leader in knowledge, research and innovation.

This requires a fundamental shift in thinking. Government must see and support advanced education as a driver, not a follower, of economic prosperity. Tomorrow’s leaders must do more than simply react to economic change — they must shape the nature of that change.

Consider, for example, the impact of SFU’s Surrey campus. Since it was created 15 years ago, the campus has catalysed a whole new city centre and spurred economic development and job growth in sectors like health technology and clean energy.      

The new government has indicated its awareness of this potential. The 2017 NDP Platform states: “Being a leader in the world economy requires being a world leader in education at every level.”

Its challenge now is to act on this insight and seize the opportunity it affords to chart a new economic strategy, and an even brighter future for this province.