SFU’s Surrey Strategy: A Boon for British Columbia

November 21, 2018

Presentation to the Surrey Board of Trade

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

Good afternoon, and thank you.

It is, as always, a pleasure to be here – in Surrey generally and, more specifically, with the Surrey Board of Trade.

I want to speak to you today about the past and the future.

Looking back, I will review the remarkable foundation that the City, the business community and the people of Surrey have created – together with SFU – over the past 16 years.

Looking ahead, I will propose how we can best build on that foundation – drawing upon the immense capacity that remains untapped in this burgeoning community – and, in the process, help British Columbia to realize its full potential.

To frame this discussion, I’d like to start with the example of our new Sustainable Energy Engineering building, which has risen as a physical illustration of what we can do when we work together – while also providing an example of things to come.

It’s been barely two years since I and others gathered at our Surrey campus with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then-Premier Christy Clark, at which time they each committed $45 million to this $126-million project.

Ottawa had made a pot of money available for vital post-secondary infrastructure projects that could proceed quickly – and SFU was ready.

We also got extraordinary support from the City of Surrey, which transferred land and fast-tracked approval processes to get the project moving.

Last year, our new BC government provided operating funding to create 440 student seats in the new Sustainable Energy Engineering program that will occupy the building – thereby supporting the first phase of a long-planned, three-phase Surrey expansion.

When it gets underway next September, this cutting-edge program will be the first of its kind in Western Canada.

Leveraging SFU’s strengths in engineering, energy technologies and environmental science, it will integrate policy, economics, management and entrepreneurship.

It’s the kind of educational program that will enrich the lives of generations of Surrey youth.

There will be 320 undergraduate seats – that’s 320 positions for students who will be empowered to make significant contributions to building the creativity, productivity and capacity of the B.C. economy.

There will also be 120 spaces for graduate students – students who will be equipped with the advanced knowledge and skills needed to help lead the development of a globally competitive innovation economy.

Combined with SFU Surrey’s celebrated Mechatronic Systems Engineering program, which will also get space in this state-of-the-art structure, the overall impact will be to advance Surrey’s leadership in clean-tech and sustainable energy … and to generate greater prosperity for the whole of British Columbia.

That is the power – and the dividend – of investing in post-secondary education here in Surrey.

It addresses both a pressing need and a fabulous opportunity.

The need and opportunity to which I refer speak to two topics of concern that arise in almost every meeting or conference I attend – with businesses, investors and government representatives.

The first is “talent” … and the concern is more than anecdotal.

It’s become increasingly apparent that access to talent is the key factor determining the vitality and growth of the B.C. economy … and that a shortage of educated workers is the main obstacle to us achieving our full potential.

A recent study by the Business Development Bank of Canada reported that nearly half of B.C.’s small and medium-sized businesses had a difficult time hiring new employees during the last 12 months –well above the national average.

A 2016 analysis by the Conference Board of Canada gave this talent shortage a price tag. It estimated that B.C.’s educational deficit is costing the province $7.9 billion a year in lost GDP, and is denying governments $1.8 billion in foregone tax revenues.

And the problem is destined to get worse if we don’t do something about it.

B.C.’s most recent Labour Market Outlook estimates that this province will need more than 900,000 new workers over the next decade, with 77 per cent of these requiring some form of post-secondary education.

In short, we face a growing – and potentially economically crippling – talent shortage.

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that the second concern that I hear most often is the cost of housing.

It’s easy to see how closely these two are related.

B.C. has traditionally relied upon the allure of its west coast climate and lifestyle to draw talent from other places, allowing us to fall short in educating a sufficient number of skilled workers here at home.

And we do fall short.  Ours is one of only two provinces to have cut expenditures on advanced education over the past decade.

As a result, BC spends less than all other provinces on post-secondary institutions and students per resident aged 18-to-21.

Yet, given our housing situation and fierce international competition for talent, we can no longer depend on recruiting workers from other jurisdictions to make up this shortfall.

Many talented prospects look at what it would cost them to live in our high-priced paradise and decide to go elsewhere – leaving us with jobs unfilled and opportunities unrealized.

There is a solution to this problem – one we can no longer afford to pass up.

Looking at the example of the Sustainable Energy Engineering program – and the increased demand for all Surrey programs since we opened our campus in 2002 – it is clear that we have an opportunity to educate many more talented individuals at home – especially, right here, south of the Fraser.

There certainly is an abundance of raw material.

Surrey has the youngest and fastest growing population in B.C.

Yet it falls significantly below the provincial average in post-secondary seats per capita.

We have a mounting talent shortage. Yet we’re under-serving the promising youth who are here already. That’s not good for anyone.

It’s also not new information.

As far back as 2006, the provincial government looked to the gathering demand for post-secondary seats in Surrey and committed to doubling SFU Surrey’s domestic student spaces from 2,500 to 5,000 by 2015.

Their foresight has been borne out in the years since, as Surrey’s population has grown even faster than expected.

Between 2006 and 2015, it rose by 35% – almost 144,000 residents.

Yet the doubling of student spaces never occurred.

No wonder demand for seats in SFU’s leading programs, such as Health Sciences and Mechatronics, has become so intense; with high school students needing average GPAs in the 90% range just to be considered.

That’s why we were so pleased last year when Advanced Education Minister Melanie Mark committed funding for the first phase of this long-awaited expansion.

And it’s why we are so keen to move forward with the next two phases.

The context here can again be found in the BC Labour Market Outlook.

It shows that, by a wide margin, the workers in highest demand fall within two categories: “Health Care and Social Assistance” and “Professional, Scientific and Technical Services.”

Not coincidentally, these are areas we are ready to address in the second and third phases of our Surrey expansion.

In particular, our vision for Phase II is Health Innovation.

Leveraging the strengths of our Faculty of Health Sciences, we are prepared to offer programs that equip students to enhance the quality, efficiency and sustainability of B.C.’s health system.

We propose to add more than 600 spaces – 540 undergraduate and 70 graduate seats – in areas designed to improve health outcomes while reducing escalating costs … including transformational approaches to health promotion, disease prevention and health care delivery.

Particular subjects of study could include: Health Systems Innovation; Indigenous Health; Health Informatics … and potentially a transformative Medical Program that would equip primary care physicians to work alongside other health care providers in a community setting.

For Phase III we are set to deliver almost 300 new seats in Creative Technologies.

These would include more than 250 undergraduate and 40 graduate spaces in programs that prepare students to address the growing need for technological advancements in all sectors of the economy.

We’re looking specifically at subjects such as visual analytics, digital media and creative entrepreneurship.

As Canada’s top Comprehensive University, and a leading research institution, we also contemplate creating research clusters in areas such as: Indigenous media; science and health communications; and digital distribution and policy.

And, across all these programs, we will be leveraging SFU’s national leadership in Big Data research and analysis.

Now, if you’ve been doing the math, you’ll be aware that the three phases I’ve described fall short of the 5,000-seat target that the province envisioned in our 2006 Memorandum of Understanding.

That’s because we have reserved over 1,000 new entry spaces for general studies. These spaces will provide students south of the Fraser greater access to the full range of SFU programs.

And, consistent with SFU’s mission to be Canada’s engaged university, all of these students would be provided opportunities for work experience and entrepreneurship training – program elements that are enriching and increasingly relevant in today’s marketplace.

I’ve talked about these areas of expansion in phases, but they are not restricted to any particular order.

As we showed when government challenged us to act quickly with the planning and creation of a Sustainable Energy Engineering building and program, we can be flexible and nimble when given the opportunity.

That said, we would like to see all 5,000 seats delivered within the next five years.

Given our own commitment, and the extraordinary support we enjoy from the City, the Board of Trade and the Surrey community, we are confident that we can meet that schedule.

All we need is the go-ahead from the province.  And, in that regard, I was pleased last week when the all-party Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services issued a unanimous report calling on the Province to provide funding to expand the number of student seats available at SFU Surrey and KPU to address the increased demand for postsecondary training and education in B.C.

So by way of review:

  • B.C. is suffering from a shortage of talent that is preventing our business sector from realizing its economic potential; while
  • Surrey is suffering from a shortage of educational capacity that is preventing its burgeoning youth population from realizing its human potential.

We have two problems that can be addressed with a single solution.

And it’s a solution that SFU is well equipped to deliver.

You need look no further than our new Sustainable Energy Engineering building to see the proof.

Two short years ago, we had only a vision and a promise – as illustrated in the compelling renderings generated at that time by Bing Thom’s architectural firm.

Now, we can admire the realization of that vision.

Later in the new year, this space will be humming with students learning how to energize a cleaner world.

Two years ago, we needed Bing Thom’s artists to help us imagine the next great leap in Surrey City Centre.

Today, we need no longer imagine – we have the reality.

So there you have it.

The City of Surrey is coming into its own.

The investments made by governments and the business community have triggered a burst of economic activity that have given substance to an inspired vision.

This city, which is on track to overtake Vancouver as the largest in Western Canada, is waiting for the next round of investments not only to meet the needs of its own growing population, but of the entire province.

Because if we do our part – and Surrey’s young and growing population is able flourish – British Columbia as a whole will reap the rewards.