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our time to lead

Andrew Petter is the President and Vice-Chancellor of Simon Fraser University.

There is a fallacy afoot that Canadians are, in some unhelpful way, too smart for our own good. Some commentators have recently suggested that we are overly educated but not necessarily well-educated. They imply that jobs go vacant because too many baristas and gym rats wasted their time in university, when they should have been concentrating on trades training, or perhaps just started earlier up the minimum wage ladder.

The evidence suggests otherwise. Canada's population certainly enjoys a high level of education by international standards. As The Globe and Mail recently reported, 57 per cent of people 25 to 34 have a postsecondary credential. Other estimates, such as the Canadian Council on Learning's 2009 study, put the level at 60 per cent among people 25 to 64.

It almost seems like we have an embarrassment of riches. Except for this: Every Canadian labour market survey from the past five years forecasts that, by 2020, a much higher percentage of new jobs will require that level of education. In British Columbia, the Labour Market Outlook pegs the level at 78 per cent.

More than 42 per cent of those jobs will require a college or trade certificate, confirming the need to increase investment in these areas. Another 35 per cent will require an undergraduate or graduate level university degree. That points to a need for more, not fewer university spaces – just to supply workers needed to fill anticipated job vacancies.

It's inevitable in a slow economy that some university graduates will take time to achieve their potential in the job market. (Ask your most successful colleagues or mentors whether they left university knowing precisely where their career path would lead.) But, again, the evidence suggests that today's employers need people who are trained to learn and adapt – not simply to know specific facts or functions or to perform a particular task.

In a world where jobs are evolving at the same pace as iPhone upgrades, effective, employable workers need to be able to conduct research, to think critically, to write effectively, to analyze problems and develop solutions, and to have a propensity to learn. In addition, they require civic literacy, global awareness, an understanding of social behaviour and human diversity; and an appreciation of the natural world. These competencies and capabilities are transferable. Many promote flexibility and agility in the workplace and job market. And most contribute to enhanced citizenship.

The traditional foundation for such skills was a "liberal arts" education – one in which students were offered a broad range of courses in the hope that they would pull the components together into a well-rounded understanding.

Today's best universities still offer these opportunities, but they don't leave as much to chance. For example, Simon Fraser University is a leader in experiential learning programs: More than one third of all SFU undergraduate and graduate courses include a significant component in which students learn through doing.

The wide array of innovations and options – reflecting the diverse needs of our students – include co-op work placements and field courses that allow students to study in other institutions, and in other countries. We have a Venture Connection program that helps undergraduate students develop business aptitudes and opportunities. The SFU Semester in Dialogue is a cohort-based program that connects students with community leaders, creating teams that explore pressing social, economic and environmental issues. And our undergraduate research awards fund students to spend a semester working on high-end university research of the kind that can expand the scope of human knowledge.

Given the number and extent of such innovations, at SFU and elsewhere, it seems that critics who suggest that Canadian universities are behind the times are, themselves, harbouring an outdated view.

Canadian society and the Canadian economy are in desperate need of educational development at every postsecondary level – from community colleges to research universities. It would be a tragic mistake to disparage those efforts or to be complacent – to think we are already doing enough, let alone too much.

Our competitors are not standing still. Neither must we.

Andrew Petter is the President and Vice-Chancellor of Simon Fraser University

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