Advanced Education in Canada: Four “I”'s on the World

March 28, 2018

Text of a speech delivered at APAIE 2018 (Asia-Pacific Association for International Education Conference) Singapore

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

Canada is a country of extraordinary good fortune, well-resourced and, by global standards, highly educated. So, broadly, the news is positive. But with an economy that is 10th largest in the world, and fastest growing in the G7, Canada is also positioned to do more to optimize our performance and engage the world to our collective benefit.

Canada enjoys a strong, predominantly public post-secondary education (PSE) system. The system includes a wide range of institutional models, ranging from celebrated community colleges to outstanding arts and technical institutions to some of the world’s top research universities.

In the Canadian constitutional system, education is the primary responsibility of provincial governments, which therefore provide most of the public operating funds.

However, the national government has become a vital source of research funding and of additional support in a few targeted areas, such as skills development, student financial support and Indigenous education.

While there is remarkable diversity in the missions, structures and mandates of Canada’s PSE institutions, the overall system’s recent development has been informed by common commitments to four ‘I’s:

  • Internationalism;
  • Interculturalism;
  • Indigenous rights; and
  • Innovation.

The first two ‘I’s reflect Canada’s support for openness and inclusivity – our abiding conviction that international engagement and intercultural understanding strengthen Canadian society, while broadening and enriching education and research.

The third ‘I’ speaks to the importance of human rights, and the particular role that education can play in enabling Indigenous Peoples and vulnerable minorities to achieve their full potential.

The fourth ‘I’ speaks to the priority that Canadian governments are placing on the modernization of Canada’s economy, and the critical role of the PSE sector in generating the knowledge and developing the talent that the country requires to build a globally competitive innovation economy.

To expand on those points, one by one, I will begin where I think we might all find benefit – with Internationalism. At a time when some countries are becoming less receptive to immigration, international trade and other forms of international engagement, Canada maintains strong commitments to internationalism in all spheres.

Canadian PSE institutions are more open than ever to international students, educational partnerships, research collaborations and other forms of international engagement. In terms of openness, Canada welcomes new immigrants at a rate of almost one percent of the population per year, a rate that is set to rise steadily over the next five years.

At the university level, 96% of all Canadian institutions identify internationalism as part of their strategic planning, with 82% saying it is an institutional priority. Canadian faculty and researchers connect aggressively around the world, collaborating with institutions in more than 180 countries and territories. The Council of Canadian Academies reports that close to 50 percent of Canadian publications have co-authors from other countries.

Canada is also an increasingly attractive magnet for students. The number of international students studying at Canadian universities has quadrupled since the year 2000 and totals close to 200,000. A recent QS survey shows that Canada is gaining ground on the United States and Australia as a preferred destination for international students, and has replaced Britain as the third destination of choice for prospective students from the Asia-Pacific region. At my own institution, over 20 percent of undergraduates and more than 28 percent of graduate students are international.

This leads naturally to the second ‘I’ – Interculturalism – which speaks to a level of diversity and tolerance that strengthens Canadian society and, in the PSE system, nourishes creativity. As an immigrant nation, Canada has a strong multicultural tradition. Toronto, Canada’s largest city, is often cited as the most multi-cultural city in the world – ahead of London and New York – even ahead of Singapore. And my home town of Vancouver proudly bills itself as the “Gateway to the Pacific” and the most Asian city outside of Asia.

As you may know, Canada has two official languages, English and French. But in Vancouver, you are just as likely to hear Mandarin, Korean, Japanese or Punjabi. Indeed, at SFU and at our sister institution, the University of British Columbia, a majority of students speak a language other than English or French in their homes.

Add to this multicultural mix a large complement of international students, and you have a highly diverse learning community that fosters intercultural engagement and promotes international understanding. The openness and intercultural character of Canada’s public PSE institutions also provides an important bulwark against the rise of intolerance and xenophobia that is proving increasingly disruptive in countries around the world.

The third ‘I’ – Indigenous rights – also speaks to diversity and Canada’s general commitment to human rights, which includes increasing recognition of the need to achieve reconciliation with our own Indigenous Peoples. Canadian governments and courts have come to recognize that Indigenous Peoples have not shared equitably in Canada’s economic and social success. Accordingly, we are engaged in a national campaign of reconciliation in which education plays a key role.

In the post-secondary world, this includes adding Indigenous peoples to governance and leadership structures, admitting more Indigenous students, and incorporating Indigenous knowledge, methods and protocols into classroom and research practices.

Indigenous Peoples are not the only populations whose rights we are working to redress, in which regard, I probably could have added a fifth “I” to my presentation for “inclusion.”

It is little credit to a country such as ours that, on average, Canadian women earn just 69 cents for every dollar earned by men, even though about three-quarters of young women have a post-secondary certificate or degree. This raises issues of inefficiency as well as injustice, in that gender diversity is now recognized as a positive force, economically as well as socially.

The Centre for International Governance Innovation estimates that a company that increases its gender diversity by one percent will enjoy a corresponding increase in revenue of 3.5 percent. RBC Economics estimated this year that equal representation of women and men in the Canadian workforce would result in a four-percent increase in the size of our economy. So, addressing women’s rights offers benefits for us all, and Canadian governments and PSE institutions have made women’s equality a priority. Universities and other PSE institutions are implementing a range of measures to promote gender equity, for example, by rectifying pay differentials, appointing more women into senior academic and administrative positions, and encouraging female students to study in the STEM disciplines.

The final ‘I’ is Innovation. While Canada’s economy is large by global standards, it is tiny compared to our nearest neighbour and to most of our largest trading partners. We depend heavily on openness and trade, and we affirmed our commitment to trade liberalization with the recent signing of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement with 10 other Pacific nations.

But successful modern economies depend on much more than open trade. In every corner of the world, we are under increasing pressure to keep pace with social and technological change. And in that, it is gratifying to see Canadian governments at every level recognizing and responding to the vital role that advanced education and research play in building an innovation economy.

With a comparatively small industrial complex to pursue and fund R&D, Canada has come to rely on its universities as crucial contributors to the country’s innovation strategy – not just as centres for education and research, but also as knowledge mobilizers, convenors and industry partners, helping to achieve provincial and national innovation goals.

On the research front, Canada’s universities perform 40 percent of all national R&D activity, compared to an OECD average of just 18 percent. So, we were pleased, that in the 2018 federal budget, the Canadian government committed the largest investment in university-based fundamental research in Canadian history.

This commitment is in addition to an initiative that will invest close to $1 billion to support innovation superclusters in which universities will work with businesses to promote innovation in areas of the economy that have the greatest potential for growth. These are important steps.

We are also seeing significant support for innovation at the provincial level. A federal-provincial infrastructure program is underwriting new research and academic facilities, such as this Sustainable Energy Engineering building that will open next year at Simon Fraser University’s Surrey campus, thanks to support from the Canadian and British Columbia governments.

Also in British Columbia, the 2018 provincial budget included the most significant expansion of post-secondary program funding in more than a decade, creating 2,900 new student seats in technology-related disciplines. This expansion recognizes that PSE institutions make contributions to Innovation that go well beyond research.

Colleges and universities educate the skilled workforces necessary in complex modern economies. And universities, especially, train highly qualified personnel for industry, academia and public sectors.

The highest performers in the PSE system also foster a strong culture of entrepreneurship. It certainly is a priority for my own institution. Successful post-secondary institutions also increasingly partner with industry and communities to solve complex, multi-disciplinary technological and social challenges. They engage.

This, too, is a particular focus for SFU, which has worked to be a national leader in community engagement, a strategy that we find benefits our students and researchers – opening up opportunities, enhancing our understanding of current issues and challenges, and insuring the relevance of our research and innovation.

To sum up, I would suggest that the Canadian Post-Secondary Education system is generally well-supported and healthy, provincially and nationally, and that it is becoming increasingly conscious of the responsibilities and opportunities that lie both within and beyond Canada’s borders:

  • We are engaged internationally and wish to be more so;
  • We are conscious of the rich benefits of interculturalism and of the importance of human rights;
  • We are working to seek reconciliation with our Indigenous peoples and to promote greater gender equality within and beyond PSE institutions; and finally,
  • On the innovation front, we realize that to stay competitive nationally, we need to be collaborative internationally.

I hope that will continue to make us good partners and that increased engagement awaits in all of our futures. In that regard, I am delighted that Canada – and Simon Fraser University in particular – has been chosen to host APAIE 2020. I understand that this will be the first time that the APAIE Conference will be held in North America, and we are looking forward to the opportunity to welcome Asian post-secondary institutions to Vancouver, and to provide a forum for engaging with them and with other institutions from around the world.