As Ontario heads to the polls this fall, candidates and voters alike must keep in mind the vital role universities play in the socioeconomic fabric of the province, said David Lindsay, President and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities (COU).
Ultimately, universities need to place themselves at the forefront of discussions that matter to voters, he added. Such engagement will foster growth and impact for Ontario’s 21 universities in an ever-changing, often-unpredictable economy.
“Candidates across all political parties tend not to think about universities. They tend to think about what people are worried about in election campaigns – usually things like jobs, the economy, health care and the environment. But we need to make sure we are connecting what we do with what people care about,” Lindsay said.
Over the past year, COU has listened to the concerns of Ontarians, he added. In preparing a recently published report outlining the opportunities that lie ahead for the province’s 21 publicly funded universities, Partnering for a Better Future for Ontario, COU engaged with a range of groups including students, employers, municipal governments and not-for-profit organizations to better understand pressing issues affecting diverse populations and demographics in the province.
“We listened carefully to what people were concerned about so that we could explain, in this election period, what the university’s value proposition is and how universities are helping to make a better future, not only for our students, but the communities we work in and the province as a whole,” Lindsay explained.
While universities might not themselves be a topic in political debates or on election platforms, they have an impact on issues that matter to the province as it enters the election cycle. Regardless of the outcome of the election, demonstrating the important role universities play in society is key to maintaining both partnerships and financial support, he said.
“We produce the talent pipeline for a competitive economy. We have graduates who work in the health-care system and social service agencies. Our innovation and research agendas contribute to quality health care, clean energy and a green environment. What we are trying to do this year, as advocacy, is to explain to all of the candidates our value, that we are partners who will respond to the concerns of the future,” he continued.
In a global economy, university graduates will be the ones best prepared to respond and thrive in the ever-changing workforce, Lindsay stressed. The Brookfield Institute recently issued a report that suggests nearly half of the jobs available in the next decade have yet to be invented, while many of today’s jobs will become extinct.
Having a resilient and knowledgeable workforce that can adapt to these unpredictable changes is essential, and such a workforce is cultivated within the postsecondary environment, Lindsay explained.
“That’s what university graduates leave our institutions with – resiliency and adaptability. Universities will continue to be an important part of the public infrastructure of whatever new and wonderful changes happen in technology and the economy. Universities have an important role to play, today and years from now, and we need to continue to ensure we are evolving and responding to changes and innovations,” he said.
They are a key part of Ontario’s public infrastructure, he said, and universities need continued investments in that infrastructure if Ontario is to move ahead in a competitive economy.
The collective annual economic impact of Ontario’s universities – including impact on local economies, graduate income prospects and research and innovation – is at least $110 billion, Lindsay noted.
Universities matter. And they need to show the public they matter.
The recent boost to fundamental research from the federal government – with $3.8 billion over the next five years committed to propel innovation and science at Canadian universities – is promising, Lindsay added, and Ontario’s universities, among the nation’s best, will benefit greatly.
“We don’t know what the technological opportunities might be five to 10 years from now and there are many transformational changes happening in advanced manufacturing at Western. The next generation, how we work together and how we communicate (what we are doing) is how we will make a difference in this rapidly changing economy,” he said.
“Another opportunity is in faculty renewal. As the generations turn over, we need to ensure we have diversity coming through the pipeline. Making money available for research in science and women in science is a great initiative (from the federal government), and that will help pull researchers through, but we also need to create doorways for them to come in through faculty renewal. The provincial government’s recent support for additional PhD placements will allow more flow-through for researchers of more diverse backgrounds.”