14 March 2013

Education and the economy

Todd Hirsch has a good piece in today's Globe and Mail about the relationship between the cost and value of education. This is an increasingly important topic with education budget cuts now hitting five provinces and student groups protesting about the cost of education, even while sector councils decry the lack of highly qualified and skilled personnel throughout the economy.

I've made the comment before that skills are where the puck is going, and by this I mean that colleges are well positioned to lead a seismic shift in education. Universities are now starting to speak about outcomes based education - this has been the purview of colleges all along. This is a very positive shift in thinking that will enable Canada to place the value of education on what it can do for social and economic outcomes, to make "people privately happy, and publicly useful." And while there will always be those programs that eschew labour market realities, the very simple fact of colleges' historical bias toward outcomes and a focus on skills lends considerable weight to the value of education.

George Brown College is an enabler of the innovation economy because we focus on skills - hard and soft - and our graduates gain employment because we are focused on offering instrumental education. Our focus on a combination of vocational education and academic excellence ensures that we help the economy have the right people with the right skills for the right jobs in the right place and time. The academic versus vocational debate is a false dichotomy that is detrimental to our economic (and social) future, insofar as it means that we then turn away from the practical in favour of the theoretical. The well worn path of Canadian low productivity and innovation - and here I would include the fact that we do not realize the benefits of our basic research - is part of this conundrum. We seem to prefer the thinking over doing, privileging the prima facie over application, perhaps because we are conscious of our history as "hewers of wood, drawers of water." 

College education and  research is applied - and unabashedly so - and our celebration of this puts us at the forefront on an ascending curve that is driving change in the way the country thinks about addressing long standing economic ills. We are focused on what the economy needs, and what employers want: people with the skills to do the jobs of today and tomorrow. This includes a range of skills from apprenticeships in the skilled trades to innovation literacy throughout the continuum of academic programs.

The explicit mandate for colleges in Ontario is to ensure that graduates are prepared for the workforce. According to the Framework for Programs of Instruction in the Minister’s Binding Policy Directive:
The Act identifies the colleges’ objects or mandate to offer a comprehensive program of career-oriented, postsecondary education and training that:
  • assists individuals in finding and keeping employment; 
  • meets the needs of employers and the changing work environment: and,
  • supports the economic and social development of their local and diverse communities.
This is an explicitly instrumental mandate. The OECD Reviews of Vocational Education and Training Learning for Jobs report offers some useful instruction here relevant to some of the policy prescriptions that Polytechnics Canada for example has recently put out. We need to celebrate this instrumentality, in education and research, and applaud any movement toward more outcomes-based education, as this will let us articulate the value of education to the needs of the economy.


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