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Commentary - April 17, 2015

by Andrew Parkin
Former director general, Council of Ministers of Education, Canada 

This op-ed was originally published on the Academica Group’s Rethinking Higher Ed Forum on April 15, 2015 

Are we pushing too many young people to go to university?

A new paper by Ken Coates argues that a preoccupation with universities and a tendency to overlook the more job-relevant training offered by colleges and polytechnic institutes is leading too many young Canadians astray. The paper, published at the end of March by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives as part of its “Jobs and Skills for the 21st Century” initiative, grabbed headlines because of its suggestion that we should cut university spaces by 25 to 30 percent and refocus our attention on producing more career-ready college graduates.

There is nothing wrong with shining the spotlight on Canada’s college sector and its success in aligning programs with job opportunities. There is a problem, however, with arguing that, if we want more college graduates in order to address anticipated skills shortages, we need fewer university ones. If the goal is to better align education with the needs of the labour market, we need to do better than engage in a zero-sum trade off between the college and university sectors.

As a first step, it is worth pointing out that Canada already stands out internationally because of its of its exceptionally strong college sector; by international standards, however, its university sector is comparatively small.

Canada ranks third in the OECD in terms of the proportion of its young adult population (age 25 to 34 years old) that has attained a tertiary education (whether college or university). This respectable position, however, is the result of the fact that the proportion of young Canadian adults with a college degree is very high, at 25 percent. This is good for second place in the OECD, behind only Korea.

By contrast, Canada ranks only 17th in the OECD in terms of the proportion of young adults with a university degree (32 percent). True, more young Canadian adults have a university degree than a college diploma. But is also true that in no other country is the difference between the relative size of the two groups of graduates as small.

This doesn’t mean that we could not benefit from even more college graduates. The point is simply that Canada does not look at all like a country that has over-emphasized university education to the detriment of colleges.

Fortunately, there is a more sensible way to boost college enrollment than by cutting university spaces. And that is to focus on the one in three young Canadians who are currently navigating the labour market without the benefit of any form of postsecondary education or training whatsoever.

If there is any group in Canadian society that is “too large” in the context of today’s knowledge intensive economy, it is the 32 percent of young Canadian adults who either never finish high school, or who end their formal education and training once their high school studies are complete. These are the young Canadians whose skills are least likely to meet the needs of employers, and who are most at risk of unemployment and under-employment.

Nothing made this clearer than the experience of the most recent recession. Unemployment spiked in the late 2000s, but the worsening job market affected those with and without a postsecondary education quite differently.

Jobs for those age 25 to 54 with no education beyond high school dropped by over 3 percent between 2008 and 2010; for those with a trades certificate or college degree, employment fell by less than one percent. But for those with a university degree, the number of jobs increased by 5 percent, representing a net gain of over 160,000 jobs. In fact, the economy added jobs for university graduates in this age group in every year during and after the recession period, including the years when the overall unemployment rate increased.

Similarly, the unemployment rate for those age 25 to 54 with neither a college diploma nor a university degree jumped three percentage points from a low of 5.3 percent to a high of 8.3 percent during the recession. By comparison, the rate for college graduates rose only 2.1 points, and only 1.8 points – from 3.5 to 5.3 percent – for university graduates.

The Canadian experience is typical of that of most industrialized countries. As the OECD pointed out in a recent study of youth in the aftermath of the economic crisis, the burden of economic adjustment has fallen disproportionately on youth with lower levels of education. And it is no stretch to anticipate that the same will be true in the case of the adjustments underway right now in the Canada’s oil-producing regions as the petroleum industry reacts to new market realities.

If we really want to focus on creating a better fit between education and the labour market and producing “career ready” graduates in an ever more demanding economy, the implication is clear. The problem is not an over-emphasis on universities but an under-emphasis on any and all forms of postsecondary education and training. This is the type of career information that students planning for their future need to hear.

This brings us to the most misdirected part of Coates’ argument, which is his claim we are doing a disservice to too many young Canadians by encouraging them to set their aspirations too high. This, he complains, only leads to universities having to cope with classrooms that include “marginally talented” students who are “ill-suited” to university studies.

Certainly, one way for universities to respond to the growing numbers and more diverse backgrounds of students is to pull their doors more tightly shut. Thankfully, most realize there is a much better way, which is to introduce new programs and services and re-emphasize teaching quality in order to meet the needs of these students – and of the employers who will eventually hire them.

In the 21st-century, all institutions and businesses have had to adapt and innovate to stay relevant and competitive. It is not clear why Coates—unlike so many of his peers—believes that the university professoriate should be an exception to this rule.

Commentary - March 6, 2015

The following commentary was published in the Saint John Telegraph-Journal  on March 6, 2015

By Peter Halpin, executive-director of the Association of Atlantic ‍Universities 

We are dismayed by the profoundly negative nature of recent editorial comments concerning the province’s ‍university sector in the Telegraph-Journal and Moncton Times & Transcript. While the ‍university sector is not above constructive criticism, the almost hostile tone of the newspapers’ opinions bring to mind a comment attributed to British author Oscar Wilde, who mused that “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing”.

Written in response to recent enrolment trends data released by the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission (MPHEC), both editorials badly under-estimate the hard work undertaken by the province’s ‍university leaders to tackle, in partnership with others, the significant challenges confronting New Brunswick. To suggest that ‍universities have been oblivious to New Brunswick’s population challenge, particularly among the university-age cohort, is simply inaccurate.

Encouraging young people from all corners of the province (14,153), across the country (4,277) and from around the world (2,793) to pursue a ‍univer‍‍sity education in New Brunswick has been a longstanding, top priority. Despite a recent slippage in enrolments, New Brunswick’s ‍university participation rate (29 percent) ranks fourth in Canada – three percent higher than the national average.

The notion that ‍university leaders are somehow insensitive to the growing cost of post-secondary education and its growing burden on students and their families is simply wrong. New Brunswick’s ‍universities expend considerable time and effort on attracting funding from sources outside government to provide millions of dollars in student scholarships and bursaries (80 percent of which is attracted from outside of the province) and on-campus employment. It is also noteworthy that 41 percent of all students who earn a bachelor’s degree do not have any debt at all, while one-third of those with debt owe less than $12,000.

New Brunswick’s ‍universities are talent magnets that annually produce nearly 5,000 credentialed graduates who become the province’s future community, business, government and political leaders, professionals and entrepreneurs who reside and start families in communities across the province. More than half of New Brunswick’s recently elected MLAs are graduates of the province’s ‍universities, including Premier Brian Gallant and many members of the Executive Council.

‍Universities are powerful economic engines, employing more than 4,000 New Brunswickers in high-quality jobs and purchasing millions of dollars in products and services from local businesses.

The province’s ‍universities lead innovation in New Brunswick, performing more than half of the province’s R&D ($135 million annually), $84 million of which is funded from outside the province.

New Brunswick’s ‍universities play a vital role in improving standards of living; creating the right environment for a thriving arts and culture sector as well as the recreation, fitness and athletic facilities vital to active and healthy lifestyles – essential to improving health and wellness outcomes. Not to mention the important role they play in providing highly supportive environments in which young people grow into adulthood.

‍Universities are publicly engaged, playing an important role in helping build civil society. Students, faculty and staff are active volunteers in their local communities, actively supporting many charitable and community service organizations.

In short, New Brunswick benefits from having four, strong, publicly engaged ‍universities in the province.

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PETER HALPIN is executive-director of the Association of Atlantic ‍Universities

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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Media release - November 28, 2014

University leaders gather in Calgary to discuss strategies for globally mobile students, research results on value of international study

CALGARY – More than 30 Canadian university presidents and vice-presidents, as well as government, student and business leaders are gathering at Mount Royal University in Calgary, December 1-2 for the “Know Canada, Know the World” workshop to discuss strategies to enable more students to be globally mobile, given the benefits to graduates, Canadian business and Canada’s diplomatic and trade relations abroad.

As the workshop gets underway on December 1, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada will release the findings of its new employers’ survey that show the importance of graduates’ global experiences to improving the competitiveness of Canadian companies.

Currently, only 3.1 percent of Canadian university students have an international learning experience annually. University study-abroad programs help young Canadians develop the international competencies that allow them to navigate new and larger worlds, build the soft skills that help them transition to rewarding careers and equip them for success in today’s dynamic global knowledge economy.

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Interview opportunities are available with:

  • Christine Tausig Ford, vice president and chief operating officer of AUCC
  • David Docherty, president of Mount Royal University
  • Ralph Nilson, president of Vancouver Island University

For more information or to schedule an interview, please contact:

Helen Murphy
Assistant Director of Communications
Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada
hmurphy@aucc.ca
phone: 613-563-3961 ext. 238
cell: 613-608-8749

Nadine Robitaille
Communications Officer
Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada
nrobitaille@aucc.ca
phone: 613-563-3961 ext. 306
cell: 613-884-8401

Media release - November 18, 2014

Incentives would create more opportunities for students

OTTAWA – Small- and medium-sized employers say university co-op graduates are job-ready – and they would hire more of them with the help of new government incentives.

Employers across Canada say co-op and internship students have the job-ready new talent and fresh thinking they need to compete in an increasingly competitive marketplace.  But a recent survey by Leger Marketing for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada also shows that employers in SMEs would create more co-op and internship opportunities for students if they had access to incentives, such as federal government vouchers or tax credits.  More than 400 small- and medium-sized enterprises across Canada were surveyed between August and September 2014.

Hiring managers say co-op and internship students are an important asset for their companies, but many see barriers in hiring them. These include salary costs, difficulties in finding the right student and the time required to supervise and train them. Government tax incentives and vouchers would reduce those barriers, according to the survey.

Companies surveyed represented a broad range of industry sectors.

The release of the survey results coincides with the AUCC-led Open Doors, Open Knowledge – Big ideas for better business initiativeThis year’s national university open house, held in partnership with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and taking place at 45 institutions this month, highlights the role of university and private sector partnerships in driving prosperity and innovation, creating jobs and preparing students for rewarding careers.

Key findings:

  • Four out of five employers who took part in the study say co-op and internship students add value to their company as a source of new talent and as future employees with workplace skills. Two-thirds say these new hires contribute new ideas to the company and are effective in their work.
  • More than two-thirds of surveyed hiring managers say they would be more inclined to hire co-op and internship students if their organizations were entitled to tax credits or vouchers for those hires. This proportion is higher in companies working in the fields of natural resources and agriculture (87%), manufacturing and construction (85%), as well as companies based in Quebec (75%).
  • Those that have hired university co-op and internship students say the top three barriers preventing their organization from hiring more of these students include difficulties in finding the appropriate candidate, the time required of senior staff to train and supervise them and the salary cost. These are the same barriers identified by companies that do not hire co-op and internship students.

Quotes:

“This study reinforces the value of experiential learning through co-ops and internships in helping students transition to careers,” says Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. “Employers clearly recognize the value of work-integrated learning – and government could help small and medium-sized businesses get greater access to these students.”

“Fifty percent of university students participate in a co-op, internship or community service learning placement,” adds Mr. Davidson. “Co-op enrolment has grown by 25 percent in recent years. More than 1,000 co-op programs are now offered at 59 universities.”

About AUCC
As the voice of Canada’s universities at home and abroad, AUCC represents 97 public and private not-for-profit universities and university degree level colleges. A membership organization providing university presidents with a unified voice and a forum for collective action, AUCC has represented the interests of Canadian universities since 1911.

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Further survey results available upon request.

More information on AUCC’s Open Doors, Open Knowledge initiative is available at www.aucc.ca/opendoors

Media Contacts:

Helen Murphy
Assistant Director of Communications
Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada
hmurphy@aucc.ca
phone: 613-563-3961 ext. 238
cell: 613-608-8749

Nadine Robitaille
Communications Officer
Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada
nrobitaille@aucc.ca
phone: 613-563-3961 ext. 306
cell: 613-884-8401


( Total - 26 )