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President and vice-chancellor of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Ont.

Paced by the rapid advancements in disruptive technologies, the labour market is slowly evolving to meet the demands of the changing economy. A new set of competencies is needed to stay employable – both technical know-how and soft skills. According to a report by Royal Bank of Canada, more than half of Canadian jobs will require a skills overhaul in the next 10 years.

This much-needed re-skilling and up-skilling of Canada’s work force presents an opportunity for higher-education institutions to bridge the current skills-gap and drive an innovative and competitive economy. Here are some recommended steps:

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Stay flexible

Postsecondary education today follows a traditional format created for high school students: attend x number of courses and in return you receive a professional diploma or degree. Trying to use this system for lifelong learning is akin to trying to fit a square peg into a round role. Universities (with only a few exceptions) are conceding the more creative continuing-education space to private sector firms that tend to take a shorter-term view on skills and knowledge, with far-reaching implications for our collective skills and productivity.

We need to create a continuous-learning system based on stackable credentials (that could include but are not limited to diplomas and degrees) that could ladder into a professional master’s diploma or master’s degree or a new creative designation. These micro credentials could be taken in modules at the pace of the learner and customized to suit their needs and schedules. This system will hopefully lead to a shift in society where the norm becomes going to campus for a day or a week each month. Such cultural change will take time, but it needs to start with a value proposition that better resonates with the realities of the employed learner.

At the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, for example, starting in June 2019, we will give graduates credit toward continuing education as they cross the stage at convocation. And though this is symbolic, it’s a good first step. It lets our grads know that the learning journey has just begun and we hope to add value throughout their entire career.

Make continuing education learner-centred

Build a flexible and accessible system where the learning outcomes dictate class format and length, which is not the historical convention of undergraduate education. As the skills of our economy change, so should the format of higher education. The skills gap requires a system where it’s normal to go back to school as it suits the learner’s needs. Singapore is one of a handful of global leaders that have instilled a lifelong learning culture into their society. In Singapore, children are growing up with the expectation of lifelong learning, and their institutions – public and private – are competing over skills training.

Influence the traditional higher education format

Our efforts in the continuous-learning space can influence our core business model, as the traditional format of 13-week semesters and three-hour classes will be questioned when other models (focused solely on learning outcomes) are working more effectively. This will result in better space and resource utilization and a much better integration of university and society. Reinventing continuing education will force universities, over time, to examine their business models and focus on options needed by learners – instead of making them adapt to an outdated system designed for high school students.

A young university can take the lead in reshaping how we think of education – simply because we don’t have as many legacy issues and traditions.

Canada needs to address the productivity and skills gaps – or risk falling further behind. Examining the changing value proposition of universities in light of the lifelong learning needs of any society presents us with both an opportunity and a challenge.

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