26 March 2013

On research, applied and otherwise

A story in yesterday's Globe and Mail provides fodder for the ongoing discussion in Canada over how much research should be basic versus how much should be applied. Federal budget ignites debate over what science is for features a much-needed debate over what some have termed "fettered research" - research that is directed, applied and linked explicitly to commercialization. The article is a fair and balanced view of the issue, which, while seemingly insoluble, is important for all of us involved in Canadian S&T to grapple with. I've pointed out before the issues and consequences of our HERD/BERD imbalance, and the real fact that, even with a world fourth ranking per capita HERD spend we just do not have the GDP to support unfettered research into every topic. We have to make choices, and orienting our best and brightest minds to the problems of the world - particularly those that concern Canada - are good candidates for prioritization, in my view. This is not popular with all. The article makes good points about the reorganization of the NRC, which is focusing more on linking industry to academia, and ensuring that Canada can get our BERD in order. The new voucher system for NRC IRAP announced in last week's budget is a good place to start, for example. And while there are certainly those not happy with the budget, I am heartened by the fact that most people from universities to colleges to industry are aligning on the need for the country to work together to solve our skills gap/mismatch and our research to commercialization issues. Focusing the discussion on how the public and private sectors can work together on everything from R&D to skills and education is a positive step forward. Skills are where the puck is going, and ensuring that the country's skilled workforce includes scientific, engineering, design, humanist and business thinking will help us to emerge as a post-industrial powerhouse in the innovation economy.

22 March 2013

Budget 2013: A glass half full

Budget 2013 is an austerity budget, but one that contains some very positive news for colleges and polytechnics. Read our press release: George Brown College ready to deliver on federal budget initiatives aimed at bridging skills mismatch.

Several key recommendations from Polytechnics Canada were contained in the budget, including an increase to the College and Community Innovation Program funding, the inclusion of college undergraduate students in the NSERC Industrial Undergraduate Student Research Awards program, apprenticeship requirements for federal procurement, and the industry innovation vouchers pilot program as part of IRAP (“credit notes to help pay for research, technology and business development services at universities, colleges and other non-profit research institutions of their choice”). Funds for the Canada Foundation for Innovation for research infrastructure and a renewal of FEDDEV Ontario are good news items - George Brown College is building the Green Building Centre, a business accelerator and entrepreneurship centre for green construction and smart buildings, with support from FEDDEV. Part of the funding to FEDDEV will go to the new Advanced Manufacturing Fund, which represents strong potential for retooling the manufacturing industries, for example via the potential for disruptive change with new technologies like 3D printing.

A big part of the budget is the focus on skills and the new Canada Jobs Fund. A potentially contentious issue as it means renegotiating the Labour Market Agreements, the Canada Job Fund will require industry and the provinces to co-invest in skills training. It is well known that Canadian industry does not invest in skills training as much as it should. As reported in the Globe and Mail, Don Drummond and Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa are optimistic about the new program.

More analysis is needed, of course, and not everyone is happy with yesterday's budget, but the bottom line here for applied research and skills training is that we are seeing an emphasis on instrumentality and industry: directing education and research toward specific aims of increasing industry engagement and investment. These are essential to improving productivity and innovation in the country.

The focus on skills and innovation is a positive theme, and with the incremental increases to applied research funding we have strong potential for increasing the kinds of experiential learning and innovation skills acquisition that is a hallmark of George Brown College and polytechnic education. The federal government has given educational institutions, industry and individuals tools with which to increase innovation and productivity. It is up to us to pick up those tools and build a better future.


19 March 2013

On skills, mismatched or otherwise

Speculation about Budget 2013 is rife with the premise of skills taking a front and centre approach in the federal government's agenda. Reports such as Flaherty to make skills training a budget focus, How to solve problem of jobs without people and people without jobs?, and Federal budget 2013: Skills training a top priority, businesses tell Flaherty show that the government is headed in the right direction in terms of ensuring that the economy has the right people with the right skills in the right places. While some may say that the skills shortage/mismatch is a misnomer, there can be no denying that Canada needs to do more to get the skills mix right. Of course the argument is complex, and it is not as easy as saying we need this type of education over that type of education. Outgoing University of Toronto president David Naylor makes these points in a recent Empire Club address, reinforcing as he does the need for basic research over applied. This is a laudable point, and one to be expected from Canada's largest research university (full disclosure: I am a proud alumni of UofT). He underscores this by emphasizing the need for the private sector to step up its R&D investment. But the most important message he imparts is the need "to promote shared programming between universities and colleges," including the good point that colleges are the finishing school for those with undergraduate degrees who want to get vocational skills relevant to the economy. The take away message here is that we need to play to our strengths, in education and research, in order to work together to solve our shared productivity and innovation problems. Putting skills front and centre, and to this I would relate the need for more outcomes based education in all post secondary education programs, is exactly the right thing to do in promoting effective wayfinding for the "K-to-work journey."

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.


11 March 2013

Education n+1

Today's Globe and Mail has an informative piece by Kevin Lynch, who, in Education 2.0, outlines views that education needs a focus on outcomes, and should include experiential learning. He offers a helpful insight that "The public education system is still organized around separate K-to-12 systems, community college systems and university systems, but the student is really engaged in a 'K-to-work' journey." Lynch quotes Rick Miner's work on "people without jobs and jobs without people" as indicative of the looming skills gap and skills shortage, something Nobina Robinson pointed out last week in her Globe op-ed. This is the kind of reasoned approach we need in Canada: orienting our education system to outcomes relevant to the needs of the economy (social, economic), and acknowledging the span of education  that serves this purpose. Colleges and polytechnics have been promoting the value of outcomes-based and experiential learning as important drivers of the economy. When innovation is linked to learning outcomes and industry needs (for education and applied research), we have a better chance of future proofing our productivity.

08 March 2013

Fixing the brain drain requires the right skills

Polytechnics Canada CEO Nobina Robinson has an op-ed in the Globe and Mail that outlines important issues for the Canadian economy. In Business must share responsibility for shortage of skilled workers, Robinson provides a fresh perspective on the "brain drain" and what key steps Canada needs to take to solve our looking skills shortage. The piece follows on the Globe front page story on the government's intent to do something about apprenticeship and the skills issues we are grappling with - issues that have deep impacts on the economy. I was especially interested to read about the comparison to the German model. There are some interesting links to labour market preparation, economic productivity, and innovation that emerge from the German system of linking education to the world of work, and linking applied research to the needs of industry.

There are two fronts here:
1. The apprenticeship issue, and the relationship to the skills gap/mismatch in the economy; and
2. The general need to encourage the development of innovation skills, with a commensurate focus on outcomes based education, where this is applicable.

As I said earlier, innovation is where the puck is; skills are where the puck is going.


01 March 2013

Apprenticeships and the innovation economy

Today's front page Globe and Mail story "Ottawa planning budget measures to tackle shortage of skilled trades" outlines a key Budget 2013 recommendation from Polytechnics Canada: to require companies who bid on and win federal building contracts to support apprenticeships. This is among a set of straight forward, easy to implement and low cost approaches to solving a very real problem in Canada with the lack of apprenticeships. Yesterday's story on people entering the skilled trades is an important sign post in evolving our understanding of what the economy needs.

Polytechnics Canada yesterday announced that George Brown College President Anne Sado is new Chair of Polytechnics Canada. George Brown College will be hosting the Polytechnics Canada annual conference on 8 May, which promises to be a full and interesting agenda. I will be convening a panel discussion on "how members of Polytechnics Canada produce talent and innovation for the green construction sector, a key industrial strength of our membership."

And while we are on the subject of ensuring that we are training and educating people for what the economy needs, here is an interesting story on "A new, flexible student aid grant program [that] will support students enrolled in selected training programs that align with British Columbia's labour market priorities."