SFU president Andrew Petter says education must be seen as a core component of B.C.'s economic strategy

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      The president of Simon Fraser University has called for a "fundamental rethink" of postsecondary education in B.C.

      "To truly become a world-leader in knowledge and innovation, we have to understand that tomorrow's leaders will need to do more than simply react to economic change," Andrew Petter told the Vancouver Board of Trade on Friday (May 27). "They will need to shape the nature of that change."

      He also stated in his speech at the Sutton Place Hotel that B.C. can establish itself as the "education province" of Canada. And with more emphasis on "human capital", Petter maintained that the province can enhance its prospects. But he suggested this will only occur when education is seen as a "core component of our economic strategy".

      "That requires a shift in thinking," Petter said. "It requires us to recognize that in today's world, people are our greatest resource. And that investing in their educational capacities is the best way to build a strong province and to secure our place in the world economy."

      UBC consistently ranks in the top three universities in Canada for its graduate and medical education.

      B.C.'s postsecondary sector delivers results

      Petter said he was also speaking in his capacity as chair of the Research Universities' Council of B.C. And he told the audience that UBC "consistently places among the top three medical-doctoral schools" in Canada, according to annual rankings by Maclean's.

      In addition, he noted that SFU has placed first in seven of the last eight years in the magazine's "comprehensive category", with UVic also faring very well. Then he stated that the University of Northern British Columbia was first this year among "primarily undergraduate" schools.

      "It's an incredible performance," Petter said. "And we achieve these high marks with less per capita funding than many other provinces."

      Petter described B.C. research universities as "top performers" in attracting federal grants, ranking second in Canada on a per capita basis. And he highlighted the 148 percent growth in research funds over the past 15 years from Ottawa. He noted that this is almost twice the Canadian average.

      "Our universities bring this province more than $700 million a year from federal and other sources, based on a direct provincial investment of less than $100 million," he said.

      The Research Universities' Council of B.C. has calculated that there's $8 billion generated annually in the combined value of direct spending, new knowledge and knowledge transfer, and the training of researchers in the "innovation sector", Petter declared.

      Then Petter praised the interconnectivity and differentiation between research universities and B.C. regional universities, colleges, and "applied schools", such as the B.C. Institute of Technology and Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

      "It means B.C. students can seek out the education they want and the training they need," he said. "Because, and all of us parents know this, one size does not fit all."

      All of this has also made the province a desirable destination for foreign students. According to Petter, international education has become B.C.'s fifth-largest export sector, worth $2.6 billion annually, "with great capacity for growth an innovation".

      Petter cites some shortcomings

      Despite these successes, Petter pointed to some negative signs undercutting the possibility of achieving even greater results.

      A Conference Board of Canada survey of employers last year revealed that B.C.'s postsecondary system still isn't graduating enough students. And this, Petter said, is costing the province $4.7 billion per year in foregone gross domestic product, according to the Conference Board's estimates.

      Petter also cited the Conference Board to suggest there's foregone annual tax revenue of $616 million provincially and $775 million federally. That's in addition to tens of thousands of foregone employment opportunities.

      "I'll quote from the Conference Board study," Petter said. "Here goes: 'Today, over 95,000 B.C. residents are not employed because they have not obtained a level of education adequate to meet current employers' needs.' And while some of this educational shortfall is in trades and applied skills, the largest gap, it turns out, is in bachelor- and graduate-level education."

      Part of the reason is that 57 percent of B.C. employers require applicants to have university degrees.

      Yet according to Petter, only 31 percent of Metro Vancouver residents 25 years and older have a degree. This compares to 46 percent in San Francisco, 40 percent in Seattle, and 33 percent in Toronto.

      "The evidence tells us that we could be doing a lot more with the postsecondary education system we have," the SFU president said. "As I suggested at the beginning, that wil require a fundamental shift in our thinking—a significant change in the way we view postsecondary education."

      Finance Minister Mike de Jong and Premier Christy Clark have kept a lid on postsecondary funding.
      Stephen Thomson

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      In particular, Petter argued that not enough is being done with graduate-level education.

      "In fields like engineering, our population seriously lags [behind] other provinces in educational attainment," he stated. "As a result employers are denied the employees they need to prosper, even as young people are denied the education they need to achieve their full potential."

      Last year, the B.C. government announced in a news release that it "is aligning operating grants provided to public post-secondary institutions to support training for in-demand jobs".

      At the time, Advanced Education Minister Andrew Wilkinson said that this "will help students get the education and training needed for our economy".

      The government previously targeted 10 percent of provincial postsecondary operating grants to specific programs, mostly in the health sector. But that will increase to 25 percent by 2017-18.

      This prompted criticism from Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver, who argued that there was already too much political interference in universities. 

      "The purpose of a university is not just to train a bunch of people who can screw screws into the wall," Weaver told the Straight last year. "The purpose of a university is to train people who can critically assess information to allow them to participate in an informed manner in a democracy."

      Green MLA Andrew Weaver says there's too much political interference in universities.

      The most recent provincial budget boosted the Ministry of Advanced Education budget by $24 million to $1.96 billion. In the previous year, the government's budget reduced operating grants to postsecondary institutions by $14 million.

      Petter emphasizes human capital

      Petter told the Vancouver Board of Trade there needs to be a "greater appreciation for the role of human capital in advancing our position in the world economy".

      "Instead of calling upon universities and colleges merely to respond to predetermined labour market demands, we need to empower our institutions to develop our labour markets and to drive our economic future," the SFU president said. "While our competitors in Europe and Asia invest in education as a primary feature of their economic strategies, we look to our natural resources and appear to regard education—pardon the pun—as secondary."

      That's despite the magnitude of growth in the knowledge economy. In high-tech alone, there are more than 60,000 people working in Metro Vancouver.

      "And provincewide, high tech employs more people than fishing, forestry, mining, and oil and gas combined," Petter said.

      There are 60,000 people working in the tech sector in the Lower Mainland, thanks in part to BCIT and other institutions.

      The SFU president emphasized that natural resources remain important to the economy. However, he said it will require "research, innovation, and high-level skills" to "maximize their value in light of changing market conditions".

      "With the natural-resource sector, as with other sectors of our economy, it's human capital that enables us to chart our own course and determine our own destiny," Petter said. "So, good as it is, we can no longer afford to take our advanced education system for granted. We need to nurture it and harness it as a central feature of our economic strategy."

      To advance the vision of B.C. as Canada's education province, Petter said that research universities, colleges, and institutes have to be treated "as the most important tools we have to build our intellectual capacity and shape our economic future". 

      "We must understand that when we help a young British Columbian to achieve his or her full potential, we are also helping our province to chart a more competitive and prosperous future," Petter said.

      In a subsequent question-and-answer session, Petter said that there's a tendency to look upon education across the country as something that "follows the economy".

      "There's an economic development and suddenly we need more of this category of worker or that," Petter stated. "We don't look at education in the way that some other jurisdictions have—as really the driver of the economy, as the leader for the economy."

      Rather than considering education as an "input cost", Petter recommended seeing it as an "investment that will produce returns".

      "It will help pay for the costs going forward," he stated. "We do that in other areas. We do that when we start to develop a natural resource. We do that in respect of infrastructure. We don't seem to do that in respect of education."