Turning Canada into, and branding it as, a hyper-skilled society?

Canada is in a global war for talent, yet there is a crisis in our graduate and postgraduate educational system. Our government is committed to create “the best-educated, most-skilled and most flexible workforce in the world”, yet for the 10th year running, the Conference Board of Canada gave the country a D grade for educating and graduating PhD students.

Five of Canada’s universities regularly make the top 100 lists in various international higher education rankings, yet none of them have the scholarly draw of the very top universities of the US and the UK. The same Conference Board report notes,  “The failure to fund world-class universities is one explanation for Canada’s comparative weaknesses in high-level academic achievement—and its associated weaknesses in innovation.”

Canada ranked the lowest out of 17 “peer countries” in the number of people completing their PhDs. Indeed, Canada saw 209 people complete PhDs out of every 100,000 between the ages of 25 and 29 – below the United States, at 289 people, France at 259 and Japan at 210. Yet, about one-quarter of doctoral students plan to live outside of Canada after completing their degrees.

On the other hand, Canadian universities granted 4,800 doctorate degrees in 2007, the highest number recorded, and there were approximately 6000 postdoctoral fellows, yet Canadian universities hired 2616 new full time university teachers that year, making it clear that the majority of PDF will not be entering into academic positions.

There is therefore a strategic need –matched by a unique opportunity– for Canada to rethink our approach to graduate and postgraduate education.    The current economic downturn is an opportunity to implement a paradigm shift, one premised on preserving the talent in Canada while building for the next upturn. It must address issues of attracting the best and brightest, positioning Canada as a marquee location for global talent. But also, serious efforts need to be made to insure that local talent is retained in the country especially when academia and industry are curtailing hiring.

A new and bold graduate and postgraduate training vision is needed, as well as a pro-active and deliberate strategy for its implementation on the required scale. A concerted effort between Canada’s major research universities and both levels of governments is required to dramatically increase enrollment of Canadian and international graduate students.

The large-scale effort should be closely linked to Canada’s long-term socio-economic and demographic objectives, as well as its employment and immigration strategy in face of a fierce and global competition for attracting highly skilled personnel.

The strategy for recruitment and training needs to be coupled with a novel approach and renewed commitment to graduate training and to technology and knowledge transfer. As such, we should contemplate a major change in the very nature of graduate education, in the strategic placement of highly skilled personnel, and in the way and means available to Canada’s most innovative businesses to recruit and utilize the advanced training of this workforce.

The cornerstones of this strategy should be:

  • Brand Canada as an international hub for leading-edge research, and talent development;
  • Ensure Canada is the nexus for innovation and a destination for the world’s best and brightest;
  • Build strategically the required capacity in Canada’s major universities;
  • Attract and recruit international talent to Canada’s research universities;
  • Innovate graduate training and link some of it closely and early to the market place;
  • Retain talent in Canada’s research universities and industry;
  • Retool some of our very best recent PhD graduates and those displaced, with business R&D skills;
  • Recognize and support areas with the greatest potential for knowledge creation and economic impact.

Canada as an international graduate training center: The rationale

  • Branding Canada as a hyper-skilled society: Advanced education and its role in the creation of a highly skilled workforce, is the basis of any technologically advanced society. The historical advantages of the G8 countries in this domain are being challenged by emerging new “technological superpowers” such as China and India.  There is therefore a strategic need   for Canada to aim for a higher level of readiness in the global competition for talent, and this country has the means to create the best-educated, most-skilled and most flexible workforce in the world. This can be accomplished by making Canada a major graduate and postgraduate training center on a global scale. But the most productive, innovative and competitive economies are those with the ability to effectively transfer skills and knowledge from their institutions of higher learning to their outlets for wealth creation. We need to be actively working on an effective national strategy for the most important aspect of technology and knowledge transfer: the strategic placement of highly skilled personnel in Canada’s most innovative sectors.
  • There is no shortage of economic, cultural, and geo-political indicators to showcase the strategic need for Canada to become a major graduate and postgraduate training hub for the world. See for example the 2002 paper  “Knowledge Matters: Skills and Learning for Canadians”, in which the Government of Canada, in its Innovation Strategy, has called on universities to increase enrollment of graduate students by an average of 5 % per year through 2010. This is now history as we are confronted with the latest report of the Conference Board of Canada mentioned above.
  • That the opportunity is unique for Canada and that the time is now is based on many factors, but the country has to adopt a new (political, cultural and intellectual) role and position in a new world. Canada’s key role and responsibility in keeping the links between the world’s diverse cultures alive, but also in creating opportunities to communicate our Canadian values via teaching and learning, our economic links and our intellectual influence. Canada’s positioning as an alternative partner for the developing world is also a must, a responsibility, and an opportunity. Canada’s distinctiveness on some major global issues: social, environmental, legal, and cultural. All these should provide new competitive advantages for Canadian Universities in terms of attracting, recruiting and retaining expertise and talent.

This entry was posted in Op-eds, R&D Policy. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Turning Canada into, and branding it as, a hyper-skilled society?

  1. Pingback: Pillage California. Pillage England. Pillage … | Piece of Mind

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