07 November 2013

Skills, Education and the Innovation Economy

The Conference Board of Canada is convening Skills and Post-Secondary Education Summit 2013: Developing the Talent We Need for a Competitive Nation yesterday and today. The agenda yesterday featured some excellent discussions, particularly international examples of education as linked explicitly to the needs of the economy. Finland, Germany, Switzerland, the UK and Australia were featured, and some strong themes emerged. These include educational instrumentality - these countries have not been afraid to be explicit in directing the aims of education to the needs of the economy, nor in streaming students at a young age into particular programs. This includes the tactical acquisition of specific skills as well as strategic social skills for citizenship.

The approach by these countries is an approach that contrasts to the Canadian system - or rather systems - in which we have a strong college and polytechnic sector explicitly linked to the needs of the economy, and a university sector that is not so much (other than professional faculties). This is changing, and I am glad to see the universities start to pay attention to the need to define and articulate what skills students emerge with from any program. BUt our somewhat libertarian view in Canada is defined by a bias toward a degree as being the sole ticket to social and economic prosperity, and we seem disinclined to tell anyone that there are other, often better options, commensurate with skill and aptitude.

We err when we focus specifically on a university degree as the main driver of skills, a point made in some of the media at the summit. Of course a university degree is a good thing - as is a college or polytechnic degree, apprenticeship ticket, diploma, or graduate certificate. When we focus only on degrees we ignore the reality that these are not always connected to the economy - nor should they always be. But a focus on degrees, as evident in some of the program material, is at odds with the concomitant focus on the skilled trades, as well as the gamut of credentials that are directly plugged into the needs of the economy. In short, we have a supply side system, when what we need is a demand driven model. If this sounds familiar, it is: this is exactly the issue the Council of Canadian Academies report "Paradox Lost" states we have with our approach to R&D.

What we in Canada need is a more balanced approach to demand driven economy (for both education and research), as well as an explicit recognition (as in Australia among others) that socio-economic balance is lost when a country is weighted too far on supply.  For our part, we would do well to speak about the credentials needed for a given occupation, rather than simply focus on bland statements like a degree being the pathway to success. I've made this point before, and it bears repeating, for we do ourselves a disservice when we pander to simple ideology around the supply of credentials when this is dislocated from demand and the means of production in the economy.

Australia has a demand driven model including a national accreditation and quality framework that shows how credential work together. The Swiss model, like the German and the Finnish models, is highly prescriptive and instrumental, but is also defined by a "high degree of permeability," meaning that even when students are streamed at a young age into particular programs, there is the ability for mobility throughout credentials, occupations and life spans.

Of particular note is Finland, with its "human-centric, equal opportunity" model that is focused on practice-based and open innovation. The Finns seem to have figured out that practice-based innovation accounts for 96% of economic growth, with science and technology innovation the other 4%, according to the EU. They strive for a balance between knowing, acting and being - all of these EU countries focus on a balance between professional skills and citizenship and life skills. Education and research are closely coupled with industry, have well defined occupation specific skills sets, link well with industry sector councils, connect to international contexts, and are oriented toward strong citizenship and civic participation.

Last month the online journal Technology Innovation Management Review published an article I wrote on Measuring Innovation Skills Acquired by College and Polytechnic Students through Applied Research. The piece is based on the work many of us in the applied research sector are engaged in, and articulates a way to measure outcomes related to our support of business innovation through applied research. The focus here is on skills, and linking these explicitly to the activities of applied research, with potential downstream effects in firms that are supported by college and polytechnic applied research, but also those that employ graduates with innovation literacy. Our team is working on this as part of a larger project; watch this space for more in the months to come.

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