President’s Message: What if…?

I don’t envy Jim Flaherty or Mike de Jong their jobs. As I write this column, our federal Finance Minister is talking about downgrading Canada’s already anemic growth projections in light of weakening global economics. He’s also recommending restraint to his provincial counterparts, citing a new Macdonald-Laurier Institute report that predicts a European-style crisis within 30 years if policies don’t change. Mr. de Jong is heading into an election campaign having promised to close a billion-dollar gap in BC’s budget by spring, all the while facing collapsing resource revenues, downgraded economic growth forecasts, and replacement of the HST with the PST.

But while I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes right now, I can’t help playing the What if …? game. What if it were up to me to turn BC’s economy around? What would I do? Focus on the resource sector, where Canada’s mining industry is assuming a leading role on the world stage? Or pour my energies into the technology sector, which, according to KPMG’s recent Technology Report Card, stands at a crucial turning point?

In fact, my bias is clear in the job I do have: the key to British Columbia’s collective future is education. Education touches every business, every community, every organization, and every issue in our province. And right now, like never before, it has the capacity to make or break our economy. BC’s economy has managed to remain relatively strong even as economies around us are faltering, and that is due in large part to decisions made in the past. Successive BC governments since the mid-20th century have grasped the link between education and economy. They invested heavily in education and research, and they built a system so multifaceted and fluid in structure that it has no equal in North America.

So while it is undoubtedly time for restraint in some areas, in education it is a pivotal moment for reinvestment. The BC Labour Market model projects a million new job openings by 2020, 78 per cent of which will require post-secondary education. Immigration, originally expected to fill a third of those job openings, has dropped by over 50 percent since 2008. People of traditional working age are declining in number, and there are not enough students entering or graduating from post-secondary education to make up the shortfall.

What’s more, graduates have lower unemployment rates and higher employment through economic downturns, earn more money, enjoy better health, raise more highly educated children, and they vote. But most institutions, including UBC, have been operating over capacity for the past six years. Most of the remaining institutions are running budget deficits and could not absorb additional students without new funding.

An election is coming, and the Research Universities’ Council of British Columbia (RUCBC) has launched its own campaign to ensure that education is a high-visibility issue. I urge you to keep it in mind when you vote. None of us wants to look back on this moment in time and think, What if …?

Read Professor Stephen Toope’s September 2012 keynote address to the Vancouver Board of Trade on this topic at: www.president.ubc.ca/speeches

Read the full text of the RUCBC’s official announcement at:
www.rucbc.ca/press-releases/2012/10/bcs-research-universities-set-out-an-opportunity-agenda-for-bc

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