Budget critics miss the point: The future of education is the foundation for innovation

Mark Henderson
May 17, 2017

The most recent federal Budget has garnered headlines more for what people say it did not do than for what it does. It has been branded as anodyne — a do-nothing Budget, a place holder while we wait to see what our neighbours to the south will do. A recent Nanos poll reported in the April 17/17 Globe and Mail shows that “Canadians dislike [the] Liberal budget,” more for not tackling the deficit than for anything it does.

But these pundits have missed a crucial point: this Budget is one of the more politically astute policy budgets in recent memory. This is because the Budget puts in place some transformational changes that support a crucial platform for innovation: education.

The federal government provides funding for education through provincial transfer payments, but officially has no say in how education is managed. Ottawa does provide research funding and this has a link to education. A key facet of providing research funding to universities and colleges is the training of what are called “Highly Qualified Personnel”; these are the students that work with professors on research. Students gain key skills and competencies via research participation, but this is not considered part of the education mandate — it’s an outcome of research activity. But students (and graduates more specifically) are important inputs to our national capacity to innovate.  Students participating in research gain key innovation literacy skills that make them valuable assets to any industry.

The Budget did have funding (carried forward from the 2016 Budget) in support of “super clusters” in key industrial sectors, including artificial intelligence. Despite these measures many have decried the lack of focus on innovation, which is seen as the key way to boost Canadian productivity and international competitiveness.

What the Budget did do however was change some key instruments related to education, which will have direct and downstream impacts on our capacity to innovate as a country.  With a focus on Skills, Innovation and Middle Class Jobs, the government has in fact enacted significant efforts to underpin the very platform for innovation. It is no accident that this is the first chapter in the Budget.

A focus on lifelong learning and retraining for new and emergent jobs and careers is a significant component of the Budget’s focus on skills. Changes to Employment Insurance and student loan eligibility marks a shift in thinking about the role of education and training in people’s lives. Where once education was seen as a stop prior to launching a career, it is now an ongoing episodic component of continual learning and adjustment as people pivot into new roles, jobs and careers over their lifetime. Expanding financial assistance to a wider demographic, including part-time and mature learners, coupled with enhancing Canadians’ access to educational supports for retraining and skills upgrading while still working, significantly modernizes these programs to bring them in line with the reality that career transitions happen while people are still working.

Another significant component of Budget 2017 is the allocation of $90 million over two years to support over 4,600 Indigenous students to access higher education. This, in addition to supports for Canadians with disabilities, will help many more people participate meaningfully in the economy.  New supports for work-integrated learning have the potential to help bridge the worlds of education and work.

The launch of a new organization to support skills development and measurement in Canada reflects the importance of preparing Canadians to meet future labour force needs. This is long overdue; many have decried the lack of good labour market information for career planning. A national approach to understanding the regional realities of the labour market — recognizing that the demand for skills and people can be met with educational supply — will help companies compete and people plan education and career paths.

With these elements the federal government has indicated its willingness to provoke some necessary changes in post secondary education. The result, one hopes, will be a stronger and more resilient society and economy.

Education is the platform for an innovative society. Innovation is the foundation for a robust economy. Education, like health, is provincially controlled, but of national importance. Canada has a federal minister for health. It is time for Canada to have a federal minister for education; we are the only OECD country without one. Having one will help stitch together the patchwork of programs that support citizen participation in the economy.

Dr Robert Luke is VP Research and Innovation at OCAD University


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