15 February 2013

Policy prescriptions and the evolution of education

Polytechnics Canada has released some policy prescriptions for the federal government to consider in the upcoming budget, focusing on the skills mismatch in the economy and support for innovation. Six ideas are put forward that will go a long way toward encouraging innovation in firms and ensuring that firms have the right people with the right skills in the right jobs. An SME innovation voucher system - such as that which Ontario is rolling out, and which is active in Alberta and Atlantic Canada; an increase in the College and Community Innovation Program funding for applied research with firms; and measures to enhance and encourage apprenticeship completion through smart procurement and reallocation of program directives. This is the kind of incremental policy innovation that can pay real dividends in the economy.

And there is a need to amplify our efforts to be more proactive and instrumental in promoting greater innovation and productivity in Canada. A recent study by the BDC shows that there are some alarming signals of disruption in the Canadian business landscape (see Canada’s Mid-Sized Firms in Decline, BDC Study Shows). Jeffrey Simpson, in today's Globe and Mail editorial, outlines the impact on manufacturing. "Hollow out manufacturing and the economy suffers," he says, warning us that in this "Canada remains, overall, a hewer of wood and drawer of water." As I've said before, we need to focus on adding value - to raw resources and the ideas and inventions emerging from our basic research alike. We need to focus on complementarity in our approach to mixing public and private interests when it comes to R&D. This applies equally to education. It's time to refocus our discussion on outcomes, and to orient the education and innovation systems to fixing what ails our economy.

It would be amusing were it not so tragic that we do not focus enough on how the education systems we have can be better put to use in promoting more innovation. Instead of furrowing our collective brows over whether or not the college or the university system is better, we would be better off using these furrows to plant the seeds for change. I read with interest a recent MacLean's article on the propagandist take on the value of a university degree over all else. The so-called million-dollar promise is shown to be false, ably demonstrated by Ken Coates and Bill Morrison. The reality is that there is not so neat a dividing line between these solitudes of Canadian education.

Data from Colleges Ontario show that according to the Student Satisfaction KPI Survey, about 12% of students enrolled in Ontario colleges have completed a university degree and 41% have prior experience in the post-secondary system. At George Brown College 45% of 2010-11 students had previous post-secondary experience, and 27% had previously completed a post-secondary credential (10.6% had completed a college diploma and 17.3% had completed a university degree).

While we argue which is better or leads to more productivity, we risk squandering a resource base of the world's leading tertiary education attainment. Other countries are outpacing us at the rate at which younger generations are attaining tertiary education  The university and college systems do different things, and these are complementary. As I said earlier: both are necessary; neither alone is sufficient. The real issue we need to address is to ensure that we are producing the talent that our economy needs, now and in the future.

Here's a parable: We are all primates, monkeys hanging from a tree branch. I believe that my branch is better than your branch, simply because it is the branch that I am hanging on to. As soon as we both realize that my branch and your branch are part of the same tree, the sooner we can both climb down from the tree and walk across the steppe together. That's evolution.

No comments: