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How Governments Can Facilitate Public Higher Education Growth

AUDIO | How Governments Can Facilitate Public Higher Education Growth
Higher education institutions have a critical role to play in developing the future workforce and in allowing a province or state to capitalize on its natural resources. Funding is often used as an incentive for institutions to pursue this type of development.

The following interview is with Thomas Lukaszuk, deputy premier of Alberta and provincial minister of advanced education and enterprise. Lukaszuk recently shared some really interesting thoughts on the role higher education institutions play in Alberta’s economy. In this interview, Lukaszuk explains in a little more detail what that role is, and what responsibility the provincial government has to ensure they fulfill their requirements.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): You have suggested that higher education institutions have a very important role to play in the ongoing growth and development of Alberta. What role is this?

Thomas Lukaszuk (TL): There are a number of roles that advanced education can play. But I divide it into two; there is a proactive role and a reactive role.

The proactive is that, through research, development of research, the financing of research and then commercialization of research, we can develop new clusters of economy in our province that currently don’t exist. And that could be in healthcare and innovation of healthcare and commercialization of it, to commercialize new products, new equipment, new medications. It could be in agriculture, developing new products and techniques. It could be in oil and gas. The list is limitless. But what we can do in this province is create an environment that attracts researchers, that attracts commercialization dollars, and then evolve that. We’ve seen that happen in Silicon Valley with high-tech industry. We’ve seen it happen in Israel, for example, with some of the technologies that they have developed. We have that potential here because of the high quality of postsecondary institutions that we have, and also because of agriculture, healthcare and many other assets.

The second role is to develop the workforce for those economies. So tying our educational institutions with some of our labor market information and making sure that we give our students — Canadians, Albertans — an opportunity to educate themselves in areas of expertise that will be required into the future so that, when they graduate, their education is relevant, sought after and results in employment.

Evo: What are a few ways that the provincial government can ensure that the province’s public higher education institutions work toward those common goals?

TL: Well, number one is making sure that we coordinate our postsecondary institutions and make sure that they collaborate; that we don’t replicate or duplicate research. Make sure that we work at attracting the talent that you need, to develop the type of research. And, that we work together in developing the talent for the workforce. So, collaboration between the 26 postsecondary institutions [in the province] will be key under the Campus Alberta model. And, then, developing government policies that are conducive to research development and training of the skills that we need in this province.

So, government is more like a director of an orchestra. You have 26 players but government’s role is to coordinate to make sure they play the same song at the same time.

Evo: Looking 10 years into the future, what kind of role do you think the provincial government will have in the operations of public higher education institutions? Will the government have influence on curricular direction?

TL: Our work as government is the same as it was 41 years ago, when Premier [Peter] Lougheed noticed that there is a potential to develop a resource — being oil sands — he amended policies and created a climate in which that industry can thrive, and then private sector took over and they did the rest.

Our job right now is to do much the same. Let’s identify the areas that we’re good at but could become great. Amend our policies to allow for this to happen and, from there, publicly-funded institutions and private institutions and industry will take over. That’s what they’re good at.

But government will always play a certain role because, at the end of the day, there are two funders of public education; one, being the student through tuitions and, two, being the taxpayer through government. So, we do have a certain area of responsibility to make sure that the product at the end of the day, that is delivered to our students and to Albertans, is one that both [groups] desire.

Evo: Will public higher education funding mechanisms change? If so, how?

TL: They may. It’s hard to predict what will happen 10 years from now because this is such a dynamic world. Sometimes you can’t predict the next two years.

But the funding mechanism is often one of the tools by which you affect change. If you want certain institutions to behave in a certain way, or you want to stimulate certain areas of the economy, often what you do is, you entice it by way of changing funding formulas. Our funding formulas haven’t been reviewed for a long period of time and I will be looking at it, definitely.

So, yes; do I anticipate changes in the funding formula? Most definitely. But that’s required.

If you want to be competitive on an international scale and compete for research dollars, compete for scientists and academics and also provide students with leading-edge education so that they can compete in the entire world, universities have to evolve; they have to be reflective of today. And to do that, often you have to change your funding models to promote certain behaviors or certain developments.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the role government plays in public higher education?

TL: We will always be active. We’re proud of our post-secondary institutions. They have been doing very well and we will continue to make sure that they are relevant and to make sure that they continue to be competitive in this international race that we’re a part of.

This interview has been edited for length.

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