Many nations around the world view their postsecondary institutions as the engines of their knowledge-based economies. In Canada, there are a number of challenges to overcome before a similar vision can be fully realized. Canadian federalism doesn't allow for a formal federal department of education. Another challenge within the education and skills training system is the wide range of participants – from institutions, academics, and employers, to students and parents; all of whom have different views.
In spite of these obstacles, a national game plan to meet the need for advanced skills – those skills learned beyond secondary school and gained through educational achievement, training, and experience – is an approach worth taking. Canada's current and future innovation, productivity, economic growth, competitiveness and overall quality of life will be affected by how we meet the skills challenges. The Conference Board of Canada is undertaking to bring together a broad range of stakeholders in its newly-formed Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education – with a mandate to look for solutions.
Skills and education are among the top drivers of individual Canadians' employment prospects and income. But advanced skills and training do more than that for Canadian society. Highly-educated and skilled individuals and families have better overall health than the national population; they have opportunities to develop basic life skills; they are more likely to develop beneficial social connections and networks and they are also more likely to be engaged politically and in their communities.
In Canada, postsecondary education (PSE) institutions are, by far, the largest provider of advanced skills. Yet, postsecondary education across Canada is not only fragmented by provincial boundaries, it is also under budgetary pressures. Provincial governments facing public deficits and burgeoning health costs are straining to provide postsecondary education with the resources to satisfy existing demands, and at the same time, meet ever-expanding expectations for the system. Many students, parents, business leaders and policy-makers say the existing PSE systems are built for a bygone era and need serious rethinking.
More broadly, there is a lack of labour market information in terms of what jobs are available and what specific skills are even required in the workforce. In the absence of good information about current and future demand for skills, the valuable investments that students are making in education are less effective, and can even go to waste.
A national strategy must also lead to more focus and co-operation related to investments with Canada's First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. There is no sound argument for the status quo – and no time for delay in making new investments. A comprehensive and cohesive skills development strategy for First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples must identify top priorities and work across boundaries to achieve results that the nation can be proud of.
The Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education is uniquely positioned to undertake a broad range of research and meaningful dialogue. The Centre will assess the economic, social and cultural impact of the PSE sector in Canada. It will examine the role and impact of technology in education. And it will undertake research that tracks the performance of the postsecondary system and help students make more informed education choices.
Improved labour market information will provide learners with more reliable information to guide their career choices. And as a country, better information on the nature and extent of skills gaps – by province, region, and economic sector – will provide a basis for PSE institutions and governments to make curriculum and program decisions that support Canada's economic needs.
Carl Amrhein is the Provost and Vice-President (Academic) at the University of Alberta and a Visiting Executive at The Conference Board of Canada. Diana MacKay is Director, Education, Health and Immigration Programs at The Conference Board of Canada.