30 September 2011

Education is not a zero sum game

Reports this week about the value of a university education have led to much debate over the purpose of education: is it to enrich people through knowledge or simply prepare people for the world of work?

The Globe reported on Monday that "University education no guarantee of earnings success", and examined the payoff for people entering undergraduate education. Academica's Ken Steele says in the report that options such as college and apprenticeship programs should be explored. Patrick Keeney, in a column in the National Post back in August laments the turning of education into vocational training. Keeney in particular decries the "hollowing out" of education as our society seeks an emphasis on results and returns on investment. While a laudable goal to provide a liberal education for its own sake to a population, Keeney overlooks the history of university education as a purview of the elite. We know that education leads to a more productive and inclusive society, hence a world-wide desire to increase education attainment at all levels. Emphasizing outcomes at all educational levels does not cheapen education, but rather increases its value to a society. Failure to see this represents a failure of the imagination and an atavism for a past elitism.

I've written here before on Canada's number one ranking in the OECD for tertiary education. It bears repeating: this is only when you include both college and university. Given the fact that many students come to college with university degrees already in hand (up to 25% at George Brown College), these data are somewhat skewed. Nevertheless, the real story here is that education is both useful (knowledge gains for its own sake) and usable (instrumental to a country's social and economic productivity).

Instrumentality and outcomes based learning are applicable to research. There is no zero sum with university teaching and research, as pointed out today in an opinion by Stephen Saideman. The same is true of education. I've quoted this here before: as John Godfrey, head of the Toronto French School has said, "The goal of education is to make people privately happy and publicly useful."

The sooner Canada gets past thinking about education and research (basic and applied) as an either-or proposition, and start seeing complementary as a worthwhile goal, then the sooner we can work on fixing our long standing productivity problem. Making informed decisions about public policy and spending linked to outcomes where appropriate is necessary in a country with a GDP the size of Canada. We must choose where to invest in research, and to support the entire spectrum of basic and applied research through to market entry, because doing so provides balance and a hedge on the future that leverages our talent pool. The same is true for education where we produce this talent pool. We owe it to ourselves and to those who want an education and a job or career to enable everyone to take their place in advancing knowledge and in finding full participation in our society. Not doing so risks impoverishment of the mind and society as a whole.

16 September 2011

Just what is productivity, and why does it matter?

Kevin Lynch and Munir Sheikh outline a prescription for fixing Canada's innovation woes in an op-ed in today's Globe and Mail. The piece is a shortened version of their recent article in the Policy Options September 2011 edition on "Innovation Nation." Their premise is a good one: "Innovation can be thought of as the process by which successful firms understand this dynamic [constant change in world markets], change, adapt and modify their products, processes or concepts of markets to take advantage of the changing environment" (p.1). Low business spending on R&D accounts for our low productivity and that "productivity growth is the dividend produced by innovation" (p.2). Importantly, they also posit "the crucial point that productivity growth is as much a social issue as an economic one because it defines our aggregate living standards" (p.2). There is also a weak understanding in firms of how productivity is measured and impacts firm performance: "The challenge with multifactor productivity as an explanatory framework is that no firms sit down and establish a multifactor productivity strategy; they have no idea what it is" (p. 4). Indeed, research done at George Brown College shows a very weak understanding in local firms of the relationship between productivity and innovation.

All of this is not news, but Lynch and Sheikh do point out that we need to foster better upstream investment in R&D rather than downstream tax incentives. More direct support for innovation in firms rather than tax incentives after the fact is a better way to incentivize firms to spend on R&D. This is precisely the point of the College and Community Innovation Program, administered by NSERC, that is funding college applied research efforts. The CCIP is showing positive effects in prompting R&D investment in firms who partner with colleges and polytechnics to address innovation gaps and needs. Applied research conducted in concert with student learning gives our students innovation literacy and entrepreneurship skills. The CCIP is a small but positive step in the direction of fostering greater firm-level innovation and R&D spending. Analysis and evaluation of the program's effects and effectiveness will lead to fine tuning and iterative improvements. But certainly in George Brown College's experience we have enjoyed positive interactions with industry partners who access faculty and students in an effort to get new products and processes to market. With college applied research accounting for about 1.5% of total public investment in R&D, this is an excellent return on investment. It is also an excellent return on Innovation that increases industry R&D spending and our collective capacity to innovate, leading to improved social and economic productivity.

15 September 2011

The imperative to improve undergraduate education

An article in today's Globe and Mail offers some insight into undergraduate education at Canada's universities. For undergrads at Canada’s universities, a new way of learning presents a reported uncustomary "high degree of consensus among Canada’s universities about the need to focus on best practices in undergraduate experience,” according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada's Paul Davidson.

It is good that the universities are focusing on undergraduate education, as this is a core strength we need to shore up; the future of Canadian social and economic productivity demands a renewed commitment to supporting talent across the entire spectrum of education. It is interesting to note that the the AUCC is acknowledging that "15 years spent focusing on high-level research has left them unable to give many undergraduates the experience they expect." This includes, according to Patrick Deane, McMaster University president, meaningful contact with accessible professors, and varied types of learning such as co-operative and field opportunities, problem-based assignments, and chances to do undergraduate research or self-assigned study." It is noteworthy to point out that these are the hallmarks of college and polytechnics education. George Brown College in particular is focused on offering our students field education opportunities - working with our industry partners on applied research is one avenue we achieve this.

A concerted effort across the post secondary education spectrum to improve undergraduate education with a focus on developing the highly qualified and skilled talent we need across the entire work force is imperative. Articulating college and university programs, enabling the mobility of learners across institutions and provincial boundaries, and providing life long and life-wide opportunities to learn new skills are all positive steps toward modernizing Canada's approach to talent generation, retention, and application to society's needs. A key feature of the college system is a focus on outcomes based learning. To decry this as a form of corporatizing education is to abrogate our responsibility as educators to ensure that students can apply what they learn to their future work. Universities and colleges alike would do well to ensure students emerge from educational programs with a clear sense of what they can do to add value to our society. As I've noted here before, quoting John Godfrey: "The goal of education is to make people privately happy and publicly useful."

14 September 2011

Business+Academic R&D=Greater Productivity & Prosperity

An article today on linking businesses with academic institutions outlines key benefits to articulating higher education with the needs of industry to innovate. James Millway of the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity correctly describes this need - using the Waterloo region Technology Triangle as an example - though his focus on universities only misses the mark. The article does refer to Conestoga College - a member of Polytechnics Canada - as a constituent that participates in the training of highly qualified and skilled personnel that also supports business innovation in firms.

Linking industry and academic institutions is something done very well in many other productive economies (Finland, Germany, Singapore, UK, US). Canada has made good progress in this area, particularly with investments in college applied research that is geared explicitly toward aiding businesses with innovation supports. The last federal budget announced new funding programs for colleges, including a new fund for colleges and universities to work together to support industry. This is a strong example of a public+private partnership approach to R&D support that is advancing a de facto Canadian innovation policy. At present Canada has a strong invention policy - as noted here Canada is fourth in the world for Higher Education Expenditures in R&D, but 15th in the world for Business Expenditures in R&D. That is to say, we have a world leading basic research infrastructure that produces top talent and inventions. What we need now is an innovation policy. An innovation policy will foster greater ties between business and academic institutions, leverage our world-leading level of tertiary attainment (from colleges and universities), and address key challenges and opportunities in R&D for greater social and economic prosperity. The Review of Federal Support to R&D will likely address this given its focus on business innovation.

As we collectively modernize our approach to research, development and innovation, we would do well to recognize complementary strengths across the entire post-secondary education system as drivers of innovation and downstream prosperity and productivity. Yesterday's release of the OECD's Education at a Glance clearly shows the value of all forms of education. The Martin Prosperity Institute has recently published two reports on The Value of Education (Part 1 and Part 2) that further support the investments in education and the potential this represents for the Canadian economy. Linking education and workforce preparation with the needs of the innovation economy is the most sure route to future prosperity.

13 September 2011

OECD releases Education at a Glance 2011

The OECD's Education at a Glance statistics for 2011 were released today. Detailed reading is required to see where we place on international tertiary attainment, for example. Data presented at the OECD conference last June indicated that Canada may not have retained the top spot, though it appears from my initial read of this that we have (Type A and B across all age groups).

In the section on How many Students will Enter Postsecondary Education, there is a good point made regarding the need to grow spaces in PSE, but also to ensure that instruction methods can meet the demands of new types of learners.

There is a strong correlation made on the attainment of tertiary education with innovation and productivity: "Having a more educated work force gave these countries a head-start in many high-skill areas. This  advantage is likely to have been particularly important for innovation and the adoption of new technologies." It is also noted elsewhere that unemployment for those with tertiary education is on average 4%, well below averages for those with no education. In short, "Higher levels of educational attainment typically lead to greater labour participation and higher employment rates."

For colleges, there are some good data and insights on what the OECD terms Vocational education and training (VET)": see pp 122 ff. The data show that this kind of market-oriented education pays good dividends for learners who enter the job market.