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Mohawk College’s City School program has grown to numerous community locations, including mobile and pop-up classrooms.Supplied

When, a decade ago, the Hamilton Spectator newspaper published its “code red” series to highlight significant socio-economic disparities between different postal codes, community partners took notice. How, they asked, can we best work together to improve the health and wellness in neighbourhoods where residents experience poverty rates more than twice as high as the city’s average?

Providing access to postsecondary education was part of the answer, they decided.

From that foundational premise, Hamilton’s Mohawk College convened the City School initiative to remove barriers to education at the community level. By opening classrooms and delivering tuition-free, for-credit courses and workshops in underserved neighbourhoods, the partnership tapped into the strengths and capacities of the community to enhance the collective impact.

What sets our institutions apart is their strong connection to communities and industry, which enables them to respond to societal changes and needs.

Denise Amyot, president and CEO of Colleges and Institutes Canada

Feedback from City School students illuminates the significant barriers they encountered as well as some of the benefits they gained from participating in the program. “Trying to go back to school when you don’t have the money to go to school is stressful, and the stress holds you back when you’re trying to concentrate on your learning,” says one participant, while another adds, “The common link between myself and the others in my class is that a lot of us … felt we needed that confidence boost.”

Every day, Canadian colleges and institutes make a difference in the lives of their students by empowering them to participate in the economy and reach their potential, says Denise Amyot, president and CEO of Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan).

“What sets our institutions apart is their strong connection to communities and industry, which enables them to respond to societal changes and needs,” she says. “They offer training for that first job and any subsequent career or work change. They provide opportunities for upskilling or reskilling for people in the workforce. And they help learners with specific needs; for example, people who don’t have a high school diploma or new Canadians.”

Since colleges and institutes serve learners from such a wide variety of backgrounds, this diversity finds reflection in the programs that are offered, which range from one hour or one week to four-year certificates or degrees, explains Ms. Amyot, who adds that over 95 per cent of all Canadians – and 86 per cent of Indigenous people – live within a 50-kilometre radius from a college or institute.

“No other network can claim such a level of proximity,” she says. “This gives colleges and institutes an incredible ability to meet the needs of industry and communities and help to ensure society can prosper.”

In 2014-15, Canada’s colleges and institutes generated $191-billion in income to the national economy, says Ms. Amyot. “And for every dollar spent on providing education at a college or institute, there was $5.40 contributed to the national economy in added income and social savings.”

This significant contribution to Canada’s social, economic and cultural development is made possible through close partnerships with public, private and non-profit sectors, says Ms. Amyot. “Feedback from partners informs curriculum and training design as well as infrastructure investments, and students often get the chance to gain work experience through internships or by working on applied research projects.”

In return, colleges and institutes provide companies – and especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – with access to talent and state-of-the-art facilities, she says. “SMEs are essential to the Canadian economy, but they often don’t have the equipment or know-how for meeting all their research and development needs. When they encounter challenges or look for opportunities to grow, they come knocking on the doors of colleges and institutes for support.”

Statistics show that, in 2017-18, CICan members worked with 7,300 partners to produce 4,400 complete innovations, such as new products, services, prototypes or processes, with close to 90 per cent of projects being completed within one year.

At the same time, rapid changes and constant disruption are requiring educational institutions to respond to emerging challenges, the climate crisis, mental health issues and an aging population among them, says Ms. Amyot. Colleges and institutes are rising to the challenge by ensuring that people everywhere have a chance to contribute to solutions.

The initial success of City School, for example, has evolved into a much broader project, called Challenge 2025, in which Mohawk College has engaged an array of governmental, not-for-profit and private sector partners to introduce postsecondary education to many more people across the community. Mobile and pop-up classrooms, which are part of the efforts, provide flexibility for including different locations.

Portable classrooms and training centres are also helping to enhance access in northern, rural and remote communities. Examples include Winnipeg-based Red River College’s mobile classrooms travelling to northern Manitoba, Sudbury-based Cambrian College’s units going to northern Ontario and Coast Mountain College’s programs reaching northern British Columbia.

By providing value for their partners from industry and community and boosting learning outcomes for their students, colleges and institutes “really are vital community hubs,” says Ms. Amyot.

Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s Editorial Department was not involved in its creation.