09 May 2014

Polytechnics Canada promotes entrepreneurship of, in education

The annual Polytechnics Canada policy conference was convened this week at Algonquin College in Ottawa. The theme of this year's conference was "Polytechnic Education: The future we want, the difference we make, the change we need".

The agenda included an opening keynote by Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. It was a great opening to the conference as Crawford focused on the necessary balance between manual and intellectual labour, itself a false dichotomy.  The main idea here is that the kinds of work that colleges and polytechnics prepare people for has been traditionally delegated to second tier status. The time has come to realize we need a complementary approach to education.

The Honourable Jason Kenney, Minister of Employment and Social Development Canada and Minister for Multiculturalism gave a keynote speech at the conference dinner preceding the event, focusing on the kinds of changes we need in ensuring we have better labour market information, credit transfer and mobility, and on the new reforms to apprenticeships. It kicked off very good discussion at the conference on the value of work (as per Mathew Crawford), as well as skills that employers need and how we can instil these in our graduates.

A panel discussion featuring representatives from all three political parties reviewed the role of the federal government in education, and there was a strong focus on innovation and the needed connection between applied education, the labour force, and the larger R&D capacity of the Canadian industrial ecosystem.

An ensuing speech by by Nathan Cullen, Member of Parliament for Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C. and Finance Critic for the Official Opposition, New Democratic Party of Canada, was a good review of the consonance that exists across political lines on issues pertaining to education and policy. Cullen also made strong points about the need to reinforce the value of college and polytechnic education - a point picked up by many - where this value has had historically diminishing returns in terms of its perceived value. In simple terms, this means a historical bias favouring universities as the ticket to the future has led to the skills issues we now face (for which we need better data, of course).

It was Cullen who stated that "Polytechnics are the entrepreneurs of post secondary education." This is a very good point - the members of Polytechnics Canada are innovating in our approach to integrating applied research as a core facet of experiential learning while helping firms to innovate. We are advancing the apprenticeship discussion to update and modernize the system for better social and economic productivity. And we are working to connect supply and demand for the innovation economy.

Addressing this topic specifically was a panel on "Connecting Demand and Supply for a 21st Century Talent Agenda". Speaking from the employer perspective was Ross Laver, Vice President, Canadian Council of Chief Executives, and making the link to post-secondary change was Professor Ross Finnie, Director of the Education Policy Research Initiative (EPRI), University of Ottawa. It was an excellent overview of the needs of employers, and how education institutions can work to meet these needs. The crown learned about the nature of skills shortages and the lag of the PSE system to deliver the skills we need now, which runs the risk of ignoring the realities of the skills needs down the road. This is complicated by the fact that the jobs we will need to fill in 10 years may not exist right now. Todd Hirsch, writing in today's Globe, makes a similar point. (warning: paywall in effect).

A closing panel on healthcare shows how polytechnics from across the country are helping entrepreneurs innovate in the health space, while providing needed culture change impetus with the teaching of innovation literacy to a wide variety of students. GBC Research partner Infonaut was featured.

We need better labour market information (LMI): "The plural of anecdote is not data" enjoined Polytechnics Canada CEO Nobina Robinson. This was echoed by many - starting with Minister Kenney right through to Ross Finnie, the latter who also focused on the relatively new field of behavioural economics. This means understanding the context in which the students (now and in the future) are making decisions about the kinds of education in which they will engage includes some of the prejudices against college mentioned above. This is not to say that university education is not useful, but rather that it is not for everyone, nor preparation for all of the jobs we have and need to fill now and in the future. It is worth repeating: we need a complementary, non-binary view of education - and research for that matter - that starts from what the market needs.

Once again it was an excellent discussion, with participation from many across the education, government and policy spectrum. The focus on the future with a practical attention paid on how we will get there - and what changes we need to work on together - was very fruitful, and significantly advanced the discourse on education, skills and innovation.  Nobina Robinson summed up the day succinctly: "When events like these ask the right questions we can get to the right solutions."

Polytechnics Canada next convenes at BCIT in November for the annual Student Applied Research Showcase. With BCIT celebrating 25 years of applied research, it promises to be a good event.

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