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For the first time in decades, the country is engaged in a vigorous debate about how the postsecondary education system can best meet the needs of the Canadian economy. Governments and business have sparked the national discussion with their complaints about shortages of career-ready graduates. On the other hand, Canadians protest the importation of temporary and immigrant workers to fill jobs that employers claim Canadians will not, or are not qualified to, take. And, meanwhile, a growing number of university graduates struggle to find the careers and employment they were led to expect when they enrolled.

All players in postsecondary education – universities, colleges, polytechnics and private-sector institutes – have important roles to play. The country needs highly-skilled and highly-motivated individuals from all of these institutions. As the economy changes, however, it is increasingly clear that this is the polytechnic moment. As an OECD report released Tuesday pointed out, in the recent recession, youth unemployment was lower in countries with strong vocational training programs.

Research-intensive, publicly funded colleges and institutes of technology – British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT); SAIT Polytechnic and NAIT in Alberta; Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology; Red River College in Manitoba and, in Ontario, Conestoga, Sheridan, Humber, George Brown College, Seneca and Algonquin – are closely attuned to the career aspirations of young Canadians and the needs of employers. To a much greater degree than most Canadians realize, the country's polytechnics provide a first-rate education combined with practical training and real career readiness.

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Unlike universities, which focus on basic research and broad education, polytechnics provide focused technical training and applied problem solving. Unlike other colleges, which focus on shorter courses and often lower technology offerings, polytechnics emphasize programs of study – in medical fields, animation, digital technologies and the natural resource sector, among others – that require more intensive diploma and degree study. As a result, the applied research profile of the polytechnics has begun to garner increasing attention from the public sector and more money from governments.

Meanwhile, polytechnics are beginning to take on several of the key characteristics of universities, offering full degrees, securing government research funding and building stronger connections with government and the private sector. But the polytechnics are fundamentally different in function and design, tied closely to the needs of local employment markets, especially in the private sector. It is vital that they maintain their distinct identity and mission, even as the number of institutions and students continues to grow. More bluntly, the country needs strong polytechnics more than it needs additional universities.

To date, Canadians have not fully embraced polytechnics, despite the career successes of their students and their engagement in economic development. Parents and high-school graduates are still focused on – even obsessed with – universities. Although this bias is changing somewhat, politicians still tend to favour universities over colleges and polytechnics in their planning and financial allocations.

Today and tomorrow, Canada's postsecondary system has to align itself much more closely with the current and future needs of Canadian young people and the rapidly shifting national and international economy. We need responsive, specialized and career-ready programs and much greater engagement of applied researchers with the business community. For Canada to succeed economically, we need young people with the skills that business and government require and research that moves quickly from the laboratory bench to the marketplace. Polytechnics play precisely these roles and have the potential to do even more as full partners in the Canadian postsecondary landscape.

The future of Canadian postsecondary education rests not on a vigorous confrontation between universities and the college sector, including polytechnics, but rather on greater co-operation among these institutions. All postsecondary institutions should be encouraged to find additional ways to partner and share resources. Such a collaborative approach, where the strengths of each type of institution are brought to bear on the career preparation, research and development needs of the regions and country as a whole, holds enormous potential. Canada's economy will perform much better if politicians, government officials, parents and young adults all recognize the changing landscape and seize the polytechnic moment.

Ken Coates is the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan and the co-author of Campus Confidential.

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