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Conservatives seek to align postsecondary and labour market with budget measures

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says competition will be "rigorous" for newly launched funding for research at post-secondary institutions. The Harper government has previously been criticized over cuts to federal science programs.

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University and college education should pay closer attention to the labour market, the federal government signalled in its budget, one that promises future funding to integrate business needs with postsecondary education and takes steps to make college programs more accessible.

Industry and business will gain access to $65-million to work "with willing post-secondary institutions to better align curricula with the needs of employers."

"One of the things we are working towards is making sure we have the right labour for industry needs ... I think one of the things this program is aimed at doing is minimizing a mismatch," said Wendy Therrien, the vice-president of government relations and Canadian partnerships at Colleges and Institutes Canada.

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With the money for the program not flowing until 2016-2017, the fall election could change everything, others cautioned.

"Much effort will go into designing it, because at the moment such a program does not exist. I look at the budget from what is real funding in fiscal '15-16, and what are things that are going to be done over the long term ... In between there is a very important political moment," said Nobina Robinson, the CEO of Polytechnics Canada, which represents research-intensive colleges and institutes of technology.

A few provinces have already introduced similar measures. In its March budget, the Alberta government said it wants to see postsecondary research aligned "with the government's efforts to diversify Alberta's economy."

British Columbia is targeting a portion of its funding for universities to schools turning out graduates in industries in demand, including natural resources and health care. And this fall, Ontario will begin discussions toward integrating labour market outcomes in its postsecondary funding formula.

Universities welcomed the attention to the relationship between education and industry needs, adding that the labour market is already changing behaviour.

"We've had regular conversations [with the federal government] on how universities are matching needs, looking at the shifts in enrollment: a 40 per cent shift in enrollments to health sciences and engineering, and drops in other fields.

"Our message is simply that students do respond to clear, consistent labour market signals and it's not a question of lag time in curricular reform, it's a question of the employer community sending those clear and consistent signals," said Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

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To make it easier for students to respond to the market, the budget contemplates a number of measures to expand the supply and skills of workers.

The Canada Student Grant program, which provides educational assistance to lower and middle-income students, will be expanded to include programs as short as 34 weeks, down from 60 weeks, a move that was announced in advance of the budget.

In addition, Indspire, the largest non-profit funder of aboriginal education in Canada, will receive $12-million for scholarships for native and Inuit students.

Polytechnics Canada had lobbied for the adoption and expansion of Blue Seal certification from the western provinces nationally, a program that requires skilled tradespeople to gain business and entrepreneurial qualifications.

"On apprenticeships it's symbolic and philosophical – when we talk about entrepreneurs, we don't leave apprentices out of the entrepreneurial class," Ms. Robinson said. "We keep saying entrepreneurship is only born out of incubators, accelerators. Skilled tradespeople are also the bedrock of business."

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