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Commentary - February 27, 2015

This letter was published in the Moncton Times & Transcript in response  to the editorial “Too many N.B. ‍universities, not enough young people” published on February 25, 2015

By Paul Davidson
President, Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada

Yesterday’s editorial highlights the need for universities to be responsive to demographic and economic changes, and to innovate.

Students today demand choice and New Brunswick’s universities offer tremendous diversity and quality across the disciplines. In focus, languages, geography and size, they offer the choice in programs and experiences that allow students to find their best pathway to a rewarding career – be they from New Brunswick or New Delhi.

In every recession we see shifts as higher education responds to economic changes. The downturn that took hold in 2008 is no exception. Students are also responsive to change, gravitating to disciplines in higher demand. And in all fields, today’s undergraduate experience is more research-intensive, global and experiential than ever. Half of all Canadian university students across all disciplines now complete at least one co-op experience, practicum, and internship or field placement by the time they graduate.

While the population of youth 18 to 21 is projected to decline by a little more than 10 percent in the region between 2015 and 2022, it stabilizes after that point. Small increases in participation rates and attracting more international student and greater interprovincial mobility can erase the impact of that decline. And as we have seen in provinces like Saskatchewan, projected population declines can themselves be reversed if the economy grows.

New Brunswick’s universities today are hubs of innovation, increasingly connecting with partners in the private sector to help companies grow and give students hands-on experiences. They’re working with industry and other partners to develop more sustainable forestry practices, advance research on aging, and learn how ocean ecosystems relate to climate change.
In the face of sharp demographic and economic changes, innovation is vital if our communities are to rebound and thrive. And universities are at the heart of innovation.

Commentary - February 23, 2015

This op-ed was published in the online edition of The Hill Times on February 23, 2015

By Paul Davidson, president, Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada

Unlocking the secrets of innovation – when it happens, how, and what we can do to fuel it – is an ongoing pursuit of governments around the world. That’s because innovation drives prosperity and quality of life. Without it, societies and economies stagnate.

Last fall Canada’s universities convened a meeting of innovation leaders from Israel, Germany and Canada to share insights into their respective national innovation systems, with an eye to strengthening the Canadian system.

The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada chose to invite experts from Israel and Germany because they represent two of the world’s most innovative economies, sharing excellence in research and innovation, strong practices of academic-industry collaboration and prominent high-tech sectors. What really came to the fore during our two days of discussions was the culture of innovation and respect for research that supports this success.

Israel is an incredibly entrepreneurial society willing to take risks in pursuit of success. As Ruth Arnon, president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities pointed out, “many Israeli start-ups are funded in the recognition that few will succeed.“

Enno Aufderheide, secretary general of Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, says his country “understands that funding research is fundamental for German prosperity.”

While conference participants agreed that the innovation process is complex, and that models cannot simply be imported from one nation to another, they also agreed that successful innovation systems have certain common elements: strong support for basic research; the involvement of students as researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs; support for creativity and risk-taking in research; multidisciplinary collaboration; and strong university-private sector ties. These elements can be seen as the building blocks of a healthy culture of innovation.

And importantly, such a culture sees both basic and applied research as essential to building a strong innovation ecosystem. Our international guests noted that German and Israeli publics understand that their countries are well-off thanks in large measure to investments in research and innovation.

So how can Canada build a culture of innovation that permeates all levels of society?

Students and young researchers are a big part of the solution. Universities and industry are increasingly tapping into students’ potential as agents of technology transfer, knowledge exchange and entrepreneurship. Israeli and German universities offer students wide scope for interaction with industry and industry-experienced faculty members. Such opportunities in Canada are fewer but increasing—for instance, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s Collaborative Research and Training Experience Program that offers graduate students and postdoctoral researchers both international and industry experience.

Another key ingredient is risk-taking and support for creativity. Major scientific discoveries cannot be planned. They come from giving creative thinkers the freedom to follow new ideas. This fact, conference participants agreed, underlines the need for research programs and institutional structures that enable innovative approaches and encourage researchers to take risks.

These principles underpin distinctive Israeli and German approaches to research funding. In Israel, a wide range of applied research and commercialization activities are funded in the expectation that some will succeed and many fail—and that failure is itself productive. In Germany, the approach of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation) to research funding prescribes no disciplinary boundaries or quotas and no application deadlines, with the aim of funding the best ideas as they emerge.

Innovation success also requires a multi-disciplinary approach. It emerges not only from the natural sciences and engineering but the social sciences and humanities as well. Canadian universities are creating campus cultures, programs and physical spaces that encourage interdisciplinary collaboration. We need these collaborations to extend beyond the campus into local, regional and international partnerships.

The private sector has a vital role to play. The vibrancy of both Germany’s and Israel’s innovation ecosystems has much to do with the depth of university-private sector collaboration in those countries. Industry mentorship and information-sharing fosters academic researchers’ awareness of applied research needs—and innovative collaborations emerge when areas of shared fit and benefit are identified.

What can Canada learn from these insights? Manuel Trajtenberg, former chair of Israel’s Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education, acknowledged that policies cannot be simply copied from one country to another. Yet, he urged Canada to “release the entrepreneurial genie” by following Israel’s lead in shaping institutions that let the best and brightest be innovative, are open to change, and empower youth with a ‘can do’ attitude.

Canada doesn’t have to change course to strengthen the success of its innovation system. We do, however, need to bring the right people together, support their creative efforts, be open to risk, and share research and innovation successes with all Canadians.


Commentary - February 13, 2015

This letter was submitted to the Globe and Mail in response to the article “Immigration changes risk leaving foreign students behind” published on February 10, 2015

By Christine Tausig Ford, vice-president and chief operating officer, Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada

Canada’s new Express Entry immigration application system should benefit international students who come to Canada to study and want to stay as permanent residents – not hinder them as your article states. Express Entry is not a new program in itself, and does not modify or replace the requirements or the annual level targets of the various economic immigration programs.

International students bring major benefits to Canadian campuses and our local communities, and contribute $8 billion to Canada’s economy every year. Given the intense competition among countries to attract global talent, it is critical that we provide these students with accurate information about Canada’s immigration system. By not doing so, we risk damaging Canada’s standing as a destination of choice.

Media release - February 9, 2015

Canada’s universities take the issue of sexual assault on campus seriously, and are working to ensure campuses are safe for all students.

But news reports that take aim at universities that have higher numbers of reported assaults are misleading and dangerous, says the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

While some aspects of the reports by CBC today on campus sexual assault were put into context, the overall tone suggested that universities with high levels of reported assaults were in the wrong. But as CBC’s own details on its methodology point out, the results cannot be interpreted as a “scorecard,” and institutions differ in how they gather and report data.

Moreover, by inflating rates by 10,000 students, CBC overstates the incidence of sexual assault on campuses.

Issues surrounding sexual assault are a challenge not just for universities but for the broader Canadian society. Of particular concern is finding ways so that more survivors can be encouraged to come forward and report assaults – an area universities have been working to improve.

AUCC’s 97 members are deeply committed to providing students, faculty and staff with a safe, supportive and respectful environment in which to learn, work and interact with others.

They are equally deeply committed to evidence, fairness and due process.

Universities and their regional/provincial associations are at the forefront in society in developing information about sexual assault, strategies to make their communities safer, and resources to support students who have been the survivors of assaults. While we welcome conversations that provide greater understanding and information on sexual assault and safety on campus, AUCC urges that such reports, both in tone and content, be reported and understood with appropriate evidence and accuracy.


Media contact:

Nadine Robitaille
Communications officer
Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada
613-563-3961 ext. 306

Commentary - December 15, 2014

This op-ed was published in the Victoria Times Colonist on December 13, 2014

By Jamie Cassels, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Victoria.

As the season for university applications in British Columbia approaches, there will be lively conversation around the holiday table. Where to go and what to study takes some thought. There are plenty of choices. But whether to pursue a postsecondary education shouldn’t be a question. It’s never been more important to pursue higher education and it is a terrific time to be a student at any one of B.C.’s fine universities.

Just as universities are incubators for the human talent that our society needs in the years and decades ahead, so are they engines for ideas and innovation through their research mission.

Last Thursday, the prime minister launched the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF). It is a transformative investment – $1.5 billion over 10 years – that will enable Canadian universities to excel globally in research areas that create long-term social and economic benefits for Canada. On the same day, the federal government released its updated Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy, which identifies five research priorities that are of strategic importance to Canada.

This new fund – layered on top of existing programs of research support – recognizes the role universities play in the country’s economic well-being. I listened to the prime minister as he articulated the benefits. “This very substantial funding helps our universities attract more top talent in areas identified as national priorities. Then it allows that talent to get to work and undertake the long-term world-class research that will ultimately be the foundation for Canada’s evolving economy,” he said.

B.C.’s universities are well-positioned to make the most of the opportunity and to deliver on it. They are recognized as global leaders in many of the fields identified as priorities, including environment and ocean sciences, clean energy, health and life sciences, information and communications technologies, advanced materials and nanotechnology.

The applications to business in those fields are significant too. The new funding will mean more connections between universities and companies ready to work with new discoveries and compete globally. It’s the type of high-level research that creates vital impact on the lives of Canadians and people around the globe.

The University of Victoria, for example, has experts working on a wide range of sustainable energy systems: from harnessing renewable sources, to managing and mitigating adverse impacts, to inventing and designing entirely new forms of energy.

UVic’s Ocean Networks Canada (ONC) created the world’s first plate-sized ocean observatory – an installation that countries around the world are trying to emulate. It opens the door to global collaboration on everything from earthquakes and tsunamis to climate change and the impact of ambient noise on marine mammals. This contributes to our knowledge and understanding of the world’s oceans as well as global climate systems and stimulates the development of innovative technologies that can be marketed and deployed around the world.

And UVic’s researchers, along with their colleagues at B.C.’s other research universities, are making fundamental contributions to understanding and improving human health.

The new CFREF encourages universities to do more of that ground-breaking research, to create more “Canada Firsts,” promoting discovery and innovation that is the key to individual, social and economic wellbeing for generations of Canadians.

CFREF is based on the principles of open competition and peer review. It supports excellence where it exists across Canada’s universities and it recognizes the need for a long-term commitment. That visionary approach encourages bold and ambitious strategies and allows us to attract and retain top researchers and to foster a new generation of innovation.

Such research intensity benefits our economy and our students. Our researchers already work with business, government, community partners and non-profits looking for better ways to solve and build. We have already seen a dramatic growth in the number of graduate students at our universities; at UVic the number of graduate students has more than doubled since 2000. And all of our students benefit from being educated in a research-intensive environment. After all, they are the innovators, problem solvers and research and business leaders of tomorrow; their creativity will be fundamental to our long-term social and economic prosperity.

When I arrived back on campus last week with the program details in hand, I saw students hard at work finishing assignments and studying for exams, some for the first time. In a few years’ time, with the benefit of this significant new future-focused investment, imagine what they’ll discover.


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