This op-ed was originally published on the Canadian Science Policy Centre website.
From the get-go, Budget 2019 was introduced by Finance Minister Bill Morneau as a “skills budget” and indeed it delivered a wide range of measures aimed at supporting access to education and lifelong learning. For colleges and institutes this was an important step towards adopting a more coherent national strategy for skills development, which is critically important to prepare Canadians for the future of work. On the innovation front however, which is equally important to Canada’s future prosperity, this budget contained few new measures for colleges and institutes.
The government’s latest budget introduced several promising initiatives for Canadian learners, such as the Canada Training Benefit, the expansion of work-integrated learning opportunities, a new outbound student mobility program and additional support for Indigenous learners. These will all help Canadians acquire the skills they need to enter the workplace with confidence and update their skills to be more resilient in the face of disruption.
Collaboration between all stakeholders, including post-secondary education providers, government and industry was also a strong theme across this budget, as supporting lifelong learning is critical to all sectors of the economy. Colleges and institutes have a long history of success in this space. Our members work at the nexus between industry and the skills requirements of Canadians, with employers involved in curriculum development and applied research projects. Leveraging these relationships and ensuring colleges and institutes have all the tools they need to fulfill their mandate in this complex environment is critical.
However, we were also hoping to see innovation investments that support this collaboration. Despite some new funding for research in a variety of sectors where colleges and institutes may be involved in applied research, such as forestry, oil and gas, and entrepreneurship, the budget measures in this area were not nearly sufficient to meet demand.
Budget 2018’s historic investment of $140 million over five years for the Tri-Agency College and Community Innovation Program had signaled a full recognition of the distinct role that colleges and institutes play in the innovation ecosystem. However, to fully capitalize on colleges and institutes’ ability to accelerate growth and competitiveness, the essential next step is providing predictable, stable research support funding for applied research offices. Unfortunately, Budget 2019 did nothing to address this challenge.
Our members across the country were hoping this new budget would help solidify recent gains and were asking for an annual investment of $40 million in research support funding. This would make the system more stable and enhance the ability of colleges and institutes to draw new entrants into regional innovation systems, particularly SMEs, young entrepreneurs and start-ups, and facilitate commercialization connections to other research players, including universities and government labs.
Even with relatively limited dollars, the research activity at Canadian colleges and institutes has had a remarkable economic impact. In 2017, colleges and institutes across Canada developed nearly 7,000 research partnerships with private, public and non-profit sector organizations, according to our research. These partnerships delivered more than 1,400 prototypes, 700 new products, 500 processes and 350 service improvements. More than 27,000 students were involved in these projects, gaining invaluable hands-on experience.
However, we are still far from reaching the full innovation potential of colleges and institutes, which requires ongoing investment in the capacity of institutions to grow their research operations while maintaining the highest standards of research excellence. It means providing resources to reach out to organizations and firms that don’t come knocking of their own accord.
Even though this need was not addressed in Budget 2019, colleges and institutes welcomed other measures that will help support innovation across the country, such as a commitment to invest $1.7 billion in access to universal high-speed internet in rural, remote and northern communities. This is infrastructure is absolutely critical to enable research and innovation in rural and remote areas where colleges and institutes are often the only institutions with local research capacity and thus the ability to drive innovation in their communities. With 95% of all Canadians living within 50 km of a college or institute location, our members are Canada’s innovation engine all across the country.
As the national voice of colleges and institutes, we will continue to press for additional research support to ensure learners and industry have access to the innovation skills and services they need to thrive and be competitive. Combined with Budget 2019’s commitment to lifelong learning, this could be a winning formula to ensure Canadians are ready to compete in a world of rapid change and technological disruption. The key is to bridge skills and innovation. With the right support, colleges and institutes are the place to do it.
President and CEO, Colleges and Institutes Canada