10 May 2013

Polytechnics Canada promotes education, innovation for the specialist economy

The annual Polytechnics Canada conference was convened this week at the waterfront campus of George Brown College, and featured some excellent and provoking ideas and discussion around the polytechnic model of education.The Honourable Brad Duguid, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, Government of Ontario opened the day by welcoming the delegates and emphasizing the importance of how the applied education we specialize in delivering is highly valued by employers and the province.

Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates then convened a panel of international experts to kick off the discussion about trends in polytechnic education and applied research. The panel featured Dr. Thomas Deissinger, Business & Economics Education Chair at University of Konstanz, Germany, Dr. Vuokko Kohtamaki, Senior Researcher at Tampere University of Technology, Finland, and Dr. James Jacobs, President of Macomb Community College, U.S.A. We learned much about the European system that fosters greater mobility of highly qualified and skilled personnel (as enabled through pan-EU Bologna education approach), and how Macomb Community College is approaching education in an era of declining state support, raising questions about how education can enable transformation and transfer: of credits, skills and knowledge. The EU approach to fostering better linkages and credit transfer among institutions is coupled with a more advanced approach to credentials, including and especially apprenticeships, that are linked to industry and labour market needs. This is an important point. In Germany for example, industry invests to a very large degree in skills training, both formal and informal. And applied research in Finland and Germany is linked explicitly to local and regional economic development. These are seen as highly positive outcomes. Our own focus on education and applied research as linked to regional social and economic development is on very solid footing here. Our capacity as a country to engage in credit transfer and mobility however, are not so solid. There is work to be done to make of Canada a truly systemized system.

This point was picked up by keynote speaker Ken Coates, Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan. Dr Coates spoke about the "specialist economy" wherein skills and knowledge needed for specific occupations are increasingly the norm as an outcome of education. (Coincidentally, today's Globe and Mail features a story on specialization in nursing.) Education in the specialist economy is more episodic, linked to labour market needs, meaning that education providers will need to adapt to providing more timely and modular approaches to credentials. This approach to education is very thoughtfully presented by former BCIT president Don Wright, in a discussion paper on the future of the institution. Of particular note in this paper is Wright's point that the role of polytechnic education is to build human capital, not filter it. This notion of broadly building society's capacity to ensure a broadly based educated population by increasing credential laddering, transfer and outcomes linked to social and economic need is a hallmark of polytechnics. Indeed, Coates said that many who go to university do so as a default or reflex. We would do well to emulate European models where polytechnic education is not seen as second to a university education. The reality is that we need a range of education and credential offerings that reflect, promote and provide for a range of occupations coupled with citizen engagement. 

The afternoon featured a panel discussion on Green Building Panel|Building Green: Applied Research & Skills Training for the Green Building Sector. Nancy Sherman, Dean of Construction & Engineering Technologies, George Brown College, Ted Maulucci, CIO, Tridel, David Silburn, Research Associate, SAIT Polytechnic, Jennie Moore, Director of Sustainable Development & Environment Stewardship, BCIT, and Mark Hoddenbagh, Director of Applied Research, Algonquin discussed the specifics around "How members of Polytechnics Canada produce talent and innovation for the green construction sector, a key industrial strength of our membership." Nancy Sherman focused on the education and applied research approach of our Green Building Centre, funded by FedDev Ontario, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, NSERC, and our industry partners.

Rick Huijbregts, Vice President for Industry and Business Transformation, Smart + Connected Communities, Cisco Canada, concluded the speakers at the evening reception with an excellent overview of Cisco's approach to fostering skills and knowledge through the Cisco Academy (including at George Brown College). The linking of industry need to skills and educational outcomes is necessary, and as we see from the international experience, a good way to orient the education system to ensure we have a well-aligned supply and demand in the labour market. Of course we want to ensure that our citizens are broadly educated; there are non-industry specific outcomes that we want to encourage, such as innovation and entrepreneurship, critical thinking and democratic engagement.

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