A commercial real-estate agent laments that most of his business clients learn about the dynamics of the commercial property market only by trial and error because almost none of them had any formal training in it in business school.
"Real estate ... is the biggest thing you never learn in business school," said Ted Reilly, a Cushman &Wakefield Canada agent.
But in the past four or five years, that has been changing at Queen's School of Business, which is now moving to join academic leaders in real estate, such as University of Western Ontario and University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business.
"We're seeing a steady increase in the number of students who tell us they want to take real-estate courses," said John Andrew, who developed the current real estate course for Queen's.
Almost a quarter of the 88 students of last year's first-year MBA students identified real estate as an area of study to pursue. "It's the first time we've seen that level of interest in real estate. It's really an under-served market in Canada.
"Alumni are giving us a similar message," Prof. Andrew added. "Some of them have gone on to work at the big property firms and they've been coming to people like me asking why we don't have a program in real estate."
Canada is behind U.S. universities in developing real-estate programs. "In the United States, there are many programs at the BCom and undergrad level, as well as in MBA programs," he said.
According to one website listing, 34 states have least one college offering real-estate certifications and programs.
"I don't know why it's been slower to develop in Canada," he said. "The issue for any business school, of course, is that it's difficult to recruit faculty."
As a result, colleges and universities have tended to rely on retired industry professionals to share their practical experience in the real-estate market, even though they are not professional teachers.
Nor are all real-estate study programs housed in business schools. Sometimes they are found in law schools, in geography or urban planning. And each school has a different focus.
Western, which has one of the oldest and broadest real-estate streams in Canada, offers real-estate courses in urban development, law and business. At UBC, Sauder business school's specialization is in commercial real-estate appraisal. Other universities specialize in real-estate law.
"It's a multi-disciplinary field," said Prof. Andrew, who thinks the economic turmoil of the past decade has contributed to the new interest in real-estate studies.
"Maybe it's because it's just about the only asset class [in Canada] that's been relatively stable in the last few years," he said. "And it will probably remain a very stable industry for now."
The fundamentals of the Canadian industry have been healthy, he said. "It hasn't had the ups and downs that it's had in some countries."
Real estate involves many complex interconnected issues, from financial products such as REITs through the municipal approval process.
There are also different perspectives from which real estate can be studied, from property development and management through the portfolio investment strategies used by institutional money managers for pension plans and insurance companies, the area from which Prof. Andrew expects the greatest future demand.
"There's no question that there's an enormous need and demand for this kind of education," Prof. Andrew said. "Look at Harvard, MIT, Cornell and Stanford."
Queen's will be gathering input from its community to determine how it will build its real-estate stream in the coming year. In the meantime, Prof. Andrew is aiming to add one to two courses a term for the next little while so that Queen's will have the ability to build an innovative offering that responds to the needs students, alumni and faculty identify.
"If we were in the States, the vast majority of those people in real-estate companies, or even corporations like General Electric that have big real-estate departments, would have a degree specializing in real estate," he said. "I've spoken to some of those people and they'll almost laugh that the CFO of a real-estate company in Canada doesn't have a real-estate degree and is largely self-taught. They can't believe it."