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The University of Toronto campusKevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Canada's universities and colleges must find ways to enhance the perennial strengths of higher education, and also to learn how to convert their scientific research into useful, commercially viable products.

Higher education in this country has great strengths – and significant shortcomings. At 51 per cent, Canada has proportionately more 25 to 64-year-olds with a university or college education of all OECD countries.

And as a recent report of the Canadian Council of Academies shows, Canadian researchers – both scientific and humanistic – are among the most respected in the world. However, the number of Canadian patents is not correspondingly large. And the proportion of research done in our universities, rather than in the private sector, is unusually high.

Originally, the phrase "liberal arts" did not just mean the humanities; in fact, the quantitative sciences had a slim majority. There were seven in all; three (the "trivium") were based in language: literature, logic and rhetoric; four (the "quadrivium") were mathematical: astronomy, geometry, algebra and, perhaps surprisingly, music – but in recent years, digital media are conspicuous in both music and visual art.

In its essence, such a curriculum is still eminently valuable. Human beings are a language species, but the place of literature, philosophy and rhetoric in universities is under pressure from the mathematical sciences. As much or more than ever, we need people who can communicate well, who can think and argue critically.

The liberal arts are necessary and good, but not sufficient in the modern age. Canada needs to find better bridges between the sciences and technological progress. "Business investment in R&D and technology lags far behind other wealthy countries," notes Karen Foster, a labour sociologist at St. Mary's University in Halifax. "Maybe it's time to develop regional, provincial and national strategies for linking business to academic research without compromising academic freedom."

Institutes of higher learning also need to differentiate themselves by focusing on areas of specialty, instead of offering students an endless menu of choices, in an effort to boost enrolment and funding. Laurentian University in Sudbury has chosen to concentrate its investments on 14 signature undergraduate programs, five specific graduate programs and nine areas of research excellence and aims to achieve greater international recognition in areas such as mining innovation and exploration, northern and rural health and stressed watershed systems. This is an excellent strategy. "It's very difficult for universities to identify areas of strength because every department wants to be recognized as such. These are tough choices to make but they are possible," said Dominic Giroux, Laurentian's president. "The advantages are undeniable for the student."

Specialization helps universities maintain their global reputations.This year, six of Canada's eight top-ranked schools lost ground in the annual Times Higher Education World University Rankings List. Rankings editor Phil Baty attributes the slippage in part to a tendency in Canada to base universities' core funding more on enrolment than strength in research and teaching.

The premium on higher education is also less in Canada than elsewhere: people with a university or college degree earn 38 per cent more than high school graduates, compared with the OECD average of 55 per cent. And Canada may not be producing the right mix of workers. Many university graduates cannot find work in their own field, while there are shortages of welders, steamfitters, mechanics and drillers.

A greater focus on polytechnic institutions that produce graduates with these technical and applicable skills is needed.

Germany, which has low youth unemployment rates, has a strikingly low proportion of university and college graduates, at less than 30 per cent. But it has a highly respected vocational training program, supported by industry. The paid apprenticeship system is so successful that some German car factories in the U.S. have introduced similar schemes there.

To adapt this model to Canada would be challenging, given the reluctance of the private sector to pay for years of employee training, and the absence of a long history of trade guilds. Ambitious families, especially immigrant ones, want their children to attend university. But this is not always the best choice.

Polytechnics such as the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton should have the prestige and funding that universities enjoy. They should not become universities, but form alliances with them, and with the private sector.

If universities and polytechnics play to their strengths, the quality of postsecondary education will rise. Scientific research needs to be converted into commercially viable products. Both are key to Canada's global competitiveness.