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Advancing Learning and Industry Engagement in Higher Ed

Engaging with the labor market is key for today’s higher ed institutions because it allows their programming to be more relevant and meet industry needs while giving students the skills to enter into or advance their careers.

The connection between higher ed and industry has always been present but hasn’t always been at the forefront. As higher ed’s business model continues to evolve into something more future-oriented, it’s critical to look closely at the employer and learner needs to find the right balance in content delivery. In this interview, Robert Luke discusses higher ed’s evolution over the past few years, how Ontario’s funding and business model is shifting and how to create ongoing educational experiences for the modern learner.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How have you seen the relationship between academia broadly and industry evolving over the past few years?

Robert Luke (RL): Academia and industry have always been connected. People have always attended postsecondary education to gain skills as part of their career journey. In the last 20 years, there’s been growing receptivity to partnerships for both research and development and for education like upskilling and reskilling.

In Canada, different governments, provincial and federal, have begun focusing on the need to strengthen relationships between academia and industry. There’s more familiarity, receptivity and funding directed at public private partnerships for research and development and to support educational activities like work-integrated learning. The connectivity is better than it has been. As a society, we are laser-focused on ensuring our graduates have an excellent education and receive support throughout their careers.

Evo: How have changes to Ontario’s funding model for colleges and universities influenced the way leaders are thinking about the business model of a future-oriented postsecondary institution today, compared to the way they were ten or 15 years ago?

RL: Here in Ontario, there’s a big focus on maintaining a good relationship between the demands of the labor market and the supply side in education that supports learners. We have a lot of jobs available and need people to draw the two sides together.

We’ve heard a lot about investment in the auto industry and about the critical materials required to drive the auto industry. We can’t have industry investment without having the ability to support it. Both the Minister of Economic Development and the Minister of Colleges and Universities talk about the role skilled people in Ontario play as the primary attraction for any business. We have billions of dollars of industry coming into this province, and it’s because we have some of the best institutions offering some of the best education.

The higher education’s business model is changing and adapting. Partnership models for R&D and education are in this mix, so are new forms of learning like microcredentials and what I would call subscription models of learning. Some of our more forward-thinking institutions are already working on implementing these elements.

Evo: What are some key challenges that higher ed institutions have historically faced when it comes to meeting the needs of industry broadly and employers specifically?

RL: One of the main challenges is that pace difference between business and academia. The two sectors work at difference cadences, and syncing them is one of the main reasons why we are standing up platforms to support partnerships. We focus our platforms and programs to reduce friction and accelerate partnerships. We do that in the education space with microcredentials and in R&D with our Ontario Collaborative Innovation platform (OCIP).

The expectations for how the two gears mesh are a little different. We see ourselves as being a clutch for those two gears. We need the gears to mesh as quickly and seamlessly as possible to accelerate employment opportunities and innovation capabilities.

Another way we help reduce friction is with artificial intelligence. OCIP uses AI to provide a match for a business with an expert across eCampusOntario members. Providing a common framework and environment is valuable to a business for whom time is money. By accelerating the discovery of experts to identifying funding opportunities, we are doing what we can to help businesses partner with our member colleges, Indigenous institutes and universities.

Evo: Is a part of OCIP’s structure not only activating research for the purpose of industrial innovation and growth but also creating opportunities for ongoing learning for professional development?

RL: There are two sides to that. One is the work-integrated learning experiences current students are getting when working on projects. The other is the learning integrated work experiences those in business are getting by working collaboratively with students and experts.

OCIP supports workforce training by linking to training programs in our Micro-Credentials Portal. These programs could be for innovation skills, business skills, product design and project management—whatever the needs are. We also link businesses to the valuable resources provided by groups such as Intellectual Property Ontario. Fundamentally, we want to help promote a no-wrong-door approach into the innovation ecosystem.

There are over 440,000 companies in Ontario and 1 million in Canada. About 98% of them are small- to medium-sized enterprises. These businesses are busy and might not have the time to figure out who to call to support their innovation or workforce training needs. We are helping businesses by providing the environment to accelerate these partnerships and de-risking them.

Evo: What was the process of getting OCIP from concept to execution, and how did you get buy-in?

RL: Timing is everything. In 2019, I was VP of Research at OCAD University and was part of the group at the Council of Ontario Universities who convened a summit with Colleges Ontario and the Council of Academic Hospitals in Ontario. The summit came up with ideas to better work together and provide complementary expertise to companies and researchers in the ecosystem. The idea for a matchmaking service came out of this summit. When COVID hit, we put this idea into action to help the City of Toronto find a fast way to access the academic expertise from the colleges and universities in the Greater Toronto Area.

At the time, six of the eight institutions were a part of our working group, so we included the other two and that’s how we got started. We can have one nondisclosure agreement if required, one contract, one IP agreement to facilitate the fast movement of expertise against these problems. We worked closely with the eight colleges and universities, plus IRAP, Mitacs, OCI, NSERC and others to make this a reality. And it worked. The Ministry of Colleges and Universities saw the value in this approach and supported the development of the platform.

53 institutions are now members of eCampusOntario and offer everything from applied research to experimental development support for any business, researcher or government looking to innovate. When you have a symphony of instruments and a simple score to understand how to get from one note to the next—to go from idea to invoice—then it’s easier to achieve buy-in.

Evo: How can a collaboration model like this start to create more investment for global corporations that either find themselves in or want to invest in Ontario?

RL: It’s a push and pull: pushing out into the market and pulling other companies into our geographic orbit. OCIP helps accelerate and de-risk innovation challenges. It provides the right expert at the right time for the project, as well as access to a vetted list of funds that people can then apply to. When we do that and we can marshal the entirety of the publicly assisted postsecondary education sector, then we’re more likely able to get companies to accelerate their journey from idea to invoice.

That means homegrown and startup companies coming out of a university that need help prototyping something can go to the college down the road with a prototyping facility for help building that out. The idea is putting together complementary expertise, and those who want to get an impact or invoice are better to accelerate along that path. And OCIP helps companies wanting to locate in Ontario understand the rich R&D ecosystem that exists here.

Evo: When it comes to driving access to professional development, corporate training and microcredentialing initiatives, is eCampusOntario’s role to manage an enrollment process for students and corporations looking for access to learning experiences? Or is it to act as a shop window running through the institution?

RL: Our model right now is to be the shop window and to provide a centralized place of contact like the microcredential portal. We want to drive traffic to our members. They’re the ones who handle enrollment. We provide the tools to increase exposure—kind of like how Amazon operates as a marketplace. We help anyone looking for learning to find microcredential learning options more easily with complex computational tools and AI designed to accelerate decisions. We want to help drive traffic to institutions and create innovative partnerships.

The microcredential portal has made great developments based on the investment by the Ministry of Colleges and Universities. Now, we’re working closely with the Future Skills Centre and the Conference Board to deploy relevant market information. The goal is to provide the tools to create a shop window.

Evo: What’s the five- to ten-year vision for some of the broader initiatives taking place across eCampus?

RL: Over the next five years, we anticipate that we’ll grow the footprint of these platforms in service of our members, partners and learners looking for workforce training. So, we’ll continue to refine the platform and business model. On the OCIP side, we’re working on an innovative pilot project with the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistant program to provide small grants for businesses in remote and rural Northern Ontario and Indigenous businesses. We want to help these businesses access an expert and scale their business ideas.

On the Micro-credential Portal, we are further developing AI front ends that will help portal users identify their skills and skills gaps and find programs to bridge these gaps. We are expanding the metadata to include links to labor market information and occupation-specific outcomes. This all helps learners learn and find the right program for them at the right point in their careers. Our member universities, colleges and Indigenous institutes benefit because this work equates to more registrations in their programs.

We want to take this beyond Ontario and provide this service to the rest of the country because there’s a gap in the market right now. It’s the same with the Micro-Credential Portal as a technology stack. We’re able to offer labour market data and unique tools that allow learners across the country to access educational support they need to advance their careers. These tools should be available to anyone in Canada—this is how we will address the productivity gaps in the country.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the work you’re doing with OCIP or the role you see eCampus playing in the future of higher ed?

RL: Systems like OCIP and our microcredentialing platform help us reaffirm the need for an outside-in approach to the education system. We’re able to support and serve the needs of employers across the province, which also helps serve and support the needs of learners.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.