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Business executives are giving a weak rating to Canada's universities, with many saying they aren't providing them with the types of graduates they need.

A new poll of 823 business leaders by Modus Research Inc. has found just 41 per cent believe universities in their province are doing a good job preparing graduates to address the needs of employers, while 31 per cent say they are doing a poor job and 21 per cent are neutral, saying they feel universities are neither doing a good nor poor job. Seven per cent say they are unsure.

Modus Research chief executive officer Charlie Graves said he has done work over many years asking business leaders about university graduates, and believes the current data shows more dissatisfaction than a decade ago.

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"Underwhelming is an understatement – those are bad numbers, they really are," he said.

While the survey did not ask executives to detail the reasons for their dissatisfaction, Mr. Graves said other research he has done has shown business leaders often complain that graduates don't have "soft" skills they need, such as good communication, writing or strategic-thinking skills. He believes the shifting focus on technical training is preparing more workers to fill skilled jobs, but is leaving other gaps that are frustrating to employers.

"I think part of what has happened in the last 20 years in the university system is an increasing focus on a narrower, much more specialized skill set, and I think that's probably affected this," he said.

The survey results will add fodder to the long-running debate about how Canadian universities should prepare students for the work force, with many arguing for more emphasis on technical training while others champion broader educations that prepare students to think and analyze more generally.

Mr. Graves said it is significant that the Modus survey found lower-tier business leaders are the happiest with universities, while top-level C-suite executives are the most dissatisfied. He said senior executives often put more value on broader analytical and communication skills for filling management roles, while lower-tier managers are often closer to the front line and look for people with specific qualifications to fill entry-level jobs.

The Modus survey also found business leaders are most unhappy in Ontario, where only 30 per cent feel universities are doing a good job preparing graduates to meet the needs of employers. In Quebec, however, 66 per cent of leaders think universities are doing well preparing students for the work force, making Quebec the only region of the country where a majority of business leaders are supportive.

"Back 10 years ago, employers were generally quite complimentary of the universities in Ontario and how well they furnished them with graduates that fit the needs they had," Mr. Graves said. "But here it looks like that support has really gone south."

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Mr. Graves said some of the stronger support in Quebec may be due to nationalistic pride in the province's institutions. But he believes more of the satisfaction is likely due to a different training approach by universities, and said the results point to a need for further research to understand how Quebec is forging a closer relationship between universities and the business sector.

"I would think people in English Canada would look at Quebec as an example of how we should do things. They're clearly doing something right here."

The survey also asked business leaders whether universities are playing an important role in preparing their provincial economies for the future, and also found dissatisfaction on meeting that goal. While 48 per cent say they are doing a good job, 25 per cent say they are doing a poor job and 21 per cent are neutral.

Ontario again had the lowest level of support, with just 42 per cent saying universities are doing a good job preparing the economy for the future, while 67 per cent in Quebec are supportive.

Mr. Graves said finding skilled people to fill jobs is the top concern for the managers surveyed, with 81 per cent saying it is a "very important" issue for them – their top concern by a wide margin.

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