Late last week, Sheldon Levy, former President of Sheridan College & Ryerson University, former Deputy Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities of Ontario, and current Interim President of University Canada West (UCW) wrote an op-ed in the Globe and Mail about the tech talent shortage in Canada and why existing universities may not be up to the challenge of ending it. When someone like Sheldon Levy talks, everyone should listen.
The op-ed is a follow-up to a white paper that UCW released last month on the subject of the tech talent pipeline. As these things go, the white paper is decent. It is heavier on talking about what institutions need to do rather than on what firms need to do, but at least the latter gets a mention and the advice for institutions is for most part sensible and realistic. But the op-ed goes a little bit further, both in taking the discussion to the national scale and in making a bold declaration that “now may be the time to imagine the creation of a new kind of institution dedicated to this task, one that’s purpose-built not just to respond to industry needs, but to anticipate them and get out in front of them – with industry involvement and collaboration”.
To a point, I agree. Personally, I think wide swathes of higher education – colleges and universities alike, and not just in the tech sector – need to get out ahead of industry needs. I mean, that is in fact a large part of the point of providing public subsidies institutions – so that they generate knowledge spillovers which can then be appropriated by employers, both public and private.
Here’s the rest of Levy’s take:
“Such a university would start by working with industry as an academic partner to better understand the skills needed to succeed in a fast-paced, digital-first economy. It would emphasize a combination of technical, strategic and humanistic skills, so that its steady stream of graduates would arrive in the work force as creative, entrepreneurial and collaborative problem-solvers.”
“That new kind of university, along with industry, would also create earlier pathways for students to learn about the sector. It would integrate tech leaders and new technologies onto campus, and into classrooms, so that students engage directly with the industry early and often. It would reach out to high schools to give students exposure to the sector before they decide on their course of study. And it would create, evaluate and implement new curriculum faster, with industry as a partner.”
The language is a bit loose here, but the intention is clear enough: there should be a university entirely devoted to the techsector, which involves a lot of work-integrated learning and the participation of firm representatives on committees that design and modify curriculum. To my mind this raises four questions:
First: I am really unclear why an educational institution would choose to prioritize tech as a sector over tech as an occupation. I know that most policy work in Canada does this, but it is enormously puzzling because tech is something that is embedded in most industries and there are hundreds of thousands of tech workers outside the tech industry, narrowly defined. As a result, a tech-as-an-industry strategy implicitly is narrower and has more limited effects than a tech-as-an-occupation strategy. I mean, sure the former might get you a few more unicorns with massive valuations and fewer employees, and obviously the responsible Minister of the Crown would get to pose for more photos with techbros (this was the lodestar of Canadian innovation policy for the entirety of Navdeep Bains’ tenure as Minister of Industry), but it seems an awful lot less likely to deliver inclusive growth.
Second, why should this approach be limited to the tech industry? Surely there are all kinds of industries that would benefit that would benefit from this approach. Maybe not all parts of a university would find themselves equally at home with such processes, but the idea that institutions should be partnering with organizations in the community to make as many local firms and organizations as possible more forward-looking and more knowledge-intensive isn’t all that controversial.
Third, why would any university want to limit itself to just one industry? I mean, this is not unheard of elsewhere in the world – a number of countries have specialized universities for broadcasting, railways, communications, police etc. – but in Canada we typically limit that approach to art schools mainly because we think that the interplay of knowledge across a number of fields is a key to quality higher learning (I’m not convinced all universities actually make this cross-disciplinary fertility work all that well, and they rarely manage themselves as if this was a priority, but it is a norm of higher education in Canada).
Fourth – and this is maybe the most important part – why does this institution need to be a university? One of the real problems with trying to focus universities on tech is simply that the lead times are waytoo long. Tech changes fast, while degrees usually take four years. If what you want most of all is to scale up production of talent, then colleges and polytechnics are a more obvious place to start than universities. Plus, they already tend to be better set-up for rapid interaction with firms on curriculum.
In short: tech talent is a problem in all fields, not just for tech companies. Having stronger interaction with firms (both public and private) to help develop better programs should be a priority in lots of fields. And to the extent we need to ramp up tech education quickly, colleges and polytechnics are almost certainly a better bet than universities.