The Need for a National Debate on the Future of Canada’s Post-Secondary Sector

Just several weeks apart, the Province of Ontario and the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS) released two formal positions on post-secondary education. The first one is a discussion paper released in late June 2012 and titled “Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge.” The other is a “Pre-Budget Submission Regarding the 2013 Federal Budget” – CAGS, early August 2012. (CAGS is a Canada-wide association bringing together 58 Canadian universities with graduate programs and the country’s three federal research-granting agencies).

Official Flag of Ontario since 1965

Official Flag of Ontario since 1965 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Three themes are common across the two documents and constitute core policy positions: (i) Canadian/Ontario graduates need to be “more immediately employable”; (ii) post-secondary institutions need to be more innovative in their approaches and practices; (iii) Canada’s post-secondary education system has to become more closely aware of, and more actively involved in, student international mobility.

(I) LABOUR-MARKET READINESS: Both organizations, CAGS and the Government of Ontario (Canada’s most populous province), place a great emphasis on the need for tighter linkages between post-secondary institutions and the labour market. CAGS quotes Professor Douglas Peers of York University who argues “it is essential that our [universities] prepare graduate students who are flexible, adaptable, and […] more immediately employable than may have been the case in the past.”

Ontario goes one step further, suggesting that the very future of a competitive post-secondary education system depends on it capacity to produce graduates that are career and job ready. “We see a higher education sector that has more fluidity between learning, training, and the workforce. […] We see a sector that fosters and supports our young entrepreneurs.” New three-year undergraduate degrees matching labour market needs are presented as one of the approaches for the province’s future.

(II) INNOVATION: In order to establish and consolidate that “fluidity” between universities and the job market, Ontario imagines a post-secondary sector that is “nimble” and “ready to adapt to the accelerating change of pace in technology and our economy.” Increased innovation has the potential to ensure both better outcomes for Ontario graduates and the financial sustainability of this publicly funded sector, given the Government’s need to balance the provincial budget in the long term.

From a similar perspective, CAGS “requests that the Federal Government invest in innovative skills training for graduate students in all disciplines that will complement their academic skills and make them both more competitive and more work place ready.” This investment is seen as crucially important not just for Canadian university graduates, but also – through them – for Canada’s economy and society.

(III) THE INTERNATIONAL DIMENSION: Both organizations are acutely aware of the importance of international mobility. While the Government of Ontario highlights the need to improve Canadian students’ exposure to other environments, the CAGS proposal is more concrete and potentially more consequential. It argues that Canada needs to attract the very best international talent, in a context in which it faces solid competition from other countries.

CAGS “urges the Federal Government to increase its assistance in marketing Canadian universities abroad in specific markets as it did with the very successful trip this spring (2012) to Brazil led by the Governor General. […] The availability of high quality graduate students – who might remain in Canada – and of highly educated and trained workers cannot be taken for granted. Canada has slipped in the OECD rankings of post graduates from the top to close to the bottom of the pack.” The Government of Ontario’s discussion paper is surprisingly light in discussing the impact of international students on the province’s post-secondary sector!

Taken together, these three themes – job-readiness, innovation, and international mobility – form the basis of a debate that Canada’s post-secondary community needs to engage in.  Canada has avoided it for too long, and these latest efforts to launch a national conversation on university education are most opportune. (Organizations are asked to submit written submissions in response to Ontario’s discussion paper, no later than September 30, 2012, to PSEsubmissions@ontario.ca or by email to Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities).

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One thought on “The Need for a National Debate on the Future of Canada’s Post-Secondary Sector

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