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Universities, Business and Canadian Competitiveness
Speech by L. R. Wilson Chairman, CAE Inc. Chancellor, McMaster University to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada
Date: April 2, 2008
Location: The University of Windsor Ontario

Good evening everyone – bonsoir Mesdames et Messieurs.

And thank you very much, Ed, for that kind introduction. Ed and I have known each other a long time, and share many common interests.  We golf together four days every year, and we are both fortunate that we have great partners!  Ed has always demonstrated a strong commitment to the cause of post-secondary education, and, of course, a very deep attachment to the community of Windsor. I am proud to be sharing the microphone with him this evening, and I thank him, and the University of Windsor community, for welcoming us here this week, and for hosting us this evening.

I have been asked to speak to you tonight about business and our universities. I do have a great interest in both, but Claire has asked me to limit my remarks to 15 minutes, so I will try to be brief.

I would like to explore with you how business and our universities, working together, can best contribute to our competitiveness as a nation - how universities can play an even stronger role in supporting Canadian businesses, and just as importantly,  how business leaders can better contribute to the quality and competitiveness of our post-secondary institutions.

I firmly believe that the relationship between business and our universities should  be an effective partnership. Obviously, Canadian companies rely on the quality and talent of our graduates.  And our educational institutions benefit substantially from the dynamism and wealth that vigorous business development brings to our society.

While there are many examples of businesses and universities partnering for mutual benefit – from the technology commercialization activities at places like the University of Waterloo, to the thousands of students who participate in co-op placements in Canadian firms – I think there remains room for improvement in how  we work together. And I think both sides stand to benefit.

But first, a few observations on  the development of our universities. A hundred years ago, universities were educating men (and a few women), principally for the church, for education and for public service. In my  lifetime, however, the relationship between universities and businesses has changed noticeably.

We should remind ourselves that fifty or sixty years ago, most universities had only begun  to tailor their curricula to help meet the specific needs of business. With the exception of certain institutions, and specialized programs  like mining, engineering or forestry, the activities of business and the focus of the academy were, by and large, separate and distinct.

This began to change during the 1950’s with the rapid increase in the complexity of commerce, and the growing diversity of the labour market. Businesses were looking for employees with new skills, and university programs began to evolve to help meet this need.  The first Canadian MBA was granted at the University of Western Ontario in 1950, and, business schools at other Canadian universities began to spring up.

Fuelled by the post-war baby boom, and conditioned by these labour market changes, and more recently by the accessibility and convenience of the internet, post-secondary education in Canada experienced enormous growth during the past half-century.

In 1955 enrolment in Canadian universities was about 73,000. By the end of 2006 there were some 815,000 full time students on Canadian campuses, including 115,000 at the graduate level. Our colleges saw similar growth. And overall enrolment is expected to increase by up to 150,000 students in the next decade.  All this in addition to even more rapid recent growth in enrolment in on-line post-secondary education courses.  Managing all this has been enormously challenging.  But during this period, Canadian society, and in particular, the Canadian business community, has been very well served by your achievements, and those of your predecessors.

But today, with accelerating changes in technology, with globalization and environmental challenges, and the impact of these forces on every aspect of our lives, we need to ask ourselves how we can best support one another in preparing our children and our grandchildren for their future.  In business, competitive forces alongside these trends mean that we must quickly attend to both difficult challenges and exciting new opportunities.  How, then, can our Universities best continue to respond to the rapidly changing needs of the learner, the labour market, and the global economy?

Well, there certainly has been an increased emphasis in the last ten years on basic research of particular interest to business, and greater attention has been focussed on the commercialization of discoveries. Campuses have become powerful research hubs, supporting the development of knowledge-based industries in Canada.

Moreover, student-centric initiatives such as co-op programs, have built new bridges between universities and labour markets.

And notwithstanding the demands and constraints of enormous growth in the system, there is no doubt that our universities have worked hard at attracting the most talented students and teachers.  This has been, and continues to be, essential to our competitiveness as a nation.

Why am I so concerned about competitiveness? Competitiveness to economists is generally associated with productivity, profitability, higher incomes – “making money”.  But in the deliberations of our Competition Policy Review Panel, we have come to realize that it is something even broader – it is a mindset – a driving force for continuous improvement in whatever we do.  It is an essential underpinning of success. And competition – competitiveness – globally, is intensifying.

Depending on the survey, we seem to have 2 or 3 universities rated in the top fifty in the world.  Our top business school was recently ranked 40th in the Financial Times’ 2008 global ranking of MBA programs.  Not bad – some might even say, “pretty good”. Can we aim higher?

As university leaders, as business leaders, and as a nation, we should be closely watching our global performance.  Our best students can choose to study in Singapore or in San Francisco, just as easily as in Saskatchewan, and our most dynamic companies now recruit on several continents, rather than in just a few Canadian cities.

This focus on global competitiveness has occupied a fair bit of my time over the past nine months. This Competition Policy Review Panel, which I mentioned, is a 5-person group that was asked last July by the federal government to examine a range of policies bearing on Canada’s position in this new, global economy.

The important role of our universities was raised in our first meeting. This is not at all surprising when you look at our Panel’s membership. Murray Edwards is the lead sponsor of the University of Saskatchewan’s school of business. Tom Jenkins has spent his career working side by side with professors and researchers at the educational institutions in the Waterloo area.

And Brian Levitt and Isabelle Hudon share the belief that we as a nation can succeed only if our universities and colleges are a fundamental part of the competitiveness agenda.

Members of our Panel, as well as the staff of our Secretariat, have met with a number of educational stakeholders as part of our work. Andrew Treusch, our Executive Director, and I met with the Presidents of the G13 research universities last October, and our Panel had a very useful meeting in Calgary in January with Indira Samarasekera, the President of the University of Alberta. As part of our consultation process we met with, and heard thoughtful suggestions from a number of academic leaders and university-based researchers.

Our Panel is focused on issues of public policy. However, with our report we intend to outline a broader competitiveness agenda, identifying roles for government, for business, and for universities in helping advance Canada’s competitive position.

This has been a bit of a journey, and we plan to release our report in June.

But this evening let me raise with you three areas where universities might consider playing an even more effective role in advancing Canada’s competitiveness.

First, I know that universities are closely attuned to the changing needs of students, and are focussed on ensuring that programs and teaching are relevant to their interests and career aspirations.

As you know better than I, today’s students are vastly different from those of even a decade ago.

Today’s students represent greater diversity in cultural backgrounds. 

Students these days are  more demanding, more intense users of information technology, and will insist that we meet their higher expectations.

The evolution of our economy and labour market has seen more men and women returning to school in mid-career for advanced training and ‘re-skilling.’ These “mature students” often have families and jobs, and have different needs in terms of scheduling, and teaching format.

It is rapidly becoming an internet-centric, wireless, electronic world. At this stage in my own life, I may be a slow-adopter of this type of technology, but my kids aren’t. And by the time my grandchildren enter the workforce they won’t want to be a part of an organization that isn’t on the cutting edge of technology. Statistics Canada reports than in 2005, just over one-quarter of adult Canadians, 6.4 million people, logged on to the internet for purposes of education, training and schoolwork.  Nearly 80% of all full and part-time students did so.

For you – us – this means continually integrating new technology, processes and methods into our teaching and our curricula.

And to be clear, I am not just talking about technology being used in engineering or computer science programs – state of the art technology and teaching are crucial no matter what the program or field of study.

Many of you know how personally committed I am to the liberal arts. I firmly believe that universities are in the business of educating and developing the leaders of tomorrow, whether in business, in the arts, or in the public services.  Martha Piper has often invoked the term “global citizenship”. Universities are important places for creating and instilling this type of broad awareness and perspective in young Canadians.

This is particularly important to business. Today’s employers want graduates with a broad outlook and outreach  – who understand the global forces at work and who are ready and able to contribute to the success of the organization, whether in Shawinigan or Shanghai.

And this brings me to the second area where I think progress is particularly important: partnerships. Universities can work even more closely, and partner more effectively, with the Canadian business community – and vice versa.

To some this may be controversial. But the model of the academy being totally withdrawn from the hurly-burly of the world of affairs is very much outdated. Business-university collaboration is key to Canada’s, or any nation’s, ability to be more competitive in the future.

There are two reasons for this.

First, close collaboration will help ensure that universities better-prepare their graduates to capitalize on opportunities in the private sector. Our firms are the key to wealth generation, and to providing the jobs and opportunities that make Canada such a great place to live. Company success depends importantly on the talent it is able to attract, and therefore it is in Canada’s best interest that programs taught on our campuses be better-aligned with the priority needs of our firms.

The second reason is the contribution business leaders  can make to the universities in terms of governance, direction and, of course, financial support.

Seymour Schulich has helped universities develop  in areas as diverse as engineering and music, not to mention business. Dick Haskayne has lent his support to the University of Calgary business school.    And I have no doubt that here in Windsor the university is energized by the focus that Ed brings from his broad experience in business and government.  I know that at McMaster, under Peter George’s leadership, Mike de Groote, Ron Joyce and David Braley have made huge contributions to the development of particular departments in our University.  I’m sure that this is true for each and every one of the institutions represented here tonight.

Many senior business leaders serve as Chairmen, or Members of University Boards of Governors, and are active in fundraising campaigns.

We saw an inspiring example of the mutual benefit of business-university collaboration last month when our Panel spent a day in Waterloo. For example, that University’s business-like approach to intellectual property rights seems to be having an impact.  We all know how important it is to reward individual achievement and to minimize bureaucratic manoeuvring in moving time-sensitive projects forward. Moreover the co-op programs in the Waterloo region are finely tuned to benefit both the local business community and the students who participate.

I am sure that it would be difficult to quantify the benefit the Waterloo region has enjoyed as a result of the unique partnership among the municipal government, the local business community and the area’s educational institutions.  Of course, it is not a model that would work everywhere.  But there is no doubt about its success, and there are some key features that we could all take a look at.

Our time in Waterloo underscored one more thing, and this is the third of the three areas where I see universities contributing to the broad objective of Canadian competitiveness. Namely, excellence through specialization.

Just as business firms benefit from focus, and from economies of scale, so too, I would suggest, can universities. The University of Waterloo has the largest mathematics department in the world. Its Perimeter Institute brings together outstanding physicists from around the world.  The National Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Alberta is rapidly becoming a recognized leader in its field.  The Montréal Neurological Institute of McGill University is one of the top institutions of its type in the world.  Likewise many other faculties, departments and research programs in universities all across the country.  Specialization, and the constant drive for excellence in selected, strategic competencies is vitally important, as it is business.

In the hyper-competitive, global economy, it is absolutely critical to aspire to be the best.

Competition in business leads investors and talented workers, as well as customers, to seek out the best global opportunities.  Similarly, the best students and professors can choose to go anywhere, and they typically choose the top universities in the world for their field of study, in the process, reinforcing the excellence of these institutions.  

The implications for Canada, and for all of us in this room are clear. We must think hard about our best opportunities.

What do we excel at? Where are we better? Where are our opportunities to be the best? And let me remind us all: the context is global. The benchmark is ”World’s best”.

By being attuned to and fulfilling the changing needs of the students who will be our leaders of tomorrow, by taking full advantage of collaborative partnerships with the business community, and by working to build world-class capabilities in selected faculties and disciplines, you will undoubtedly be playing a crucial role.

As Canadians, we can take great pride in what we have accomplished.  Indeed, the polls suggest that most of us today are happy with who and where we are.  But have we, perhaps, therefore, become too complacent about our prospects, and those of our children and grandchildren?

Many people in rapidly-developing countries are not at all content with what they have thus far achieved, and with their prospects, and are very clearly committed to doing better. In our consultations, the Panel is hearing that to be “world class”, we need to “skate harder, shoot harder and keep our elbows up in the corners”, to use a recognizably Canadian metaphor.  We are being told that Canada must sharpen its competitive edge – that Canadians need to develop a more competitive mindset.

So, it seems, there is work yet to be done.  As always, leadership is the key – and time is not on our side.

And so, my very best wishes on your deliberations at these important meetings. Merci beaucoup.