There seems to be a recurring theme in discussions about post-secondary education policy – we talk a lot about big ideas (innovation, productivity, quality, the list goes on) but have a hard time getting consensus on what we actually mean by these terms.

When it comes to the conversation about skills training and post-secondary education, though, the folks at the Conference Board of Canada are trying to make things easier by providing us with a clear but intentionally broad definition of what is meant by skills: “A skilled person is a person who, through education, training and experience, makes a useful contribution to the economy and society.”

On Monday, June 2, 2013, the AGM of the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education (CSSHE) heard from Dr. Carl Amrhein on this very topic. Dr. Amrhein, on leave from his position as Provost and Vice-President Academic at the University of Alberta, is working with the Conference Board of Canada to undertake a long-term initiative that will examine the skills and post-secondary education challenges that Canada is facing. And on June 3, Dr. Michael Bloom, Vice-President Organizational Effectiveness and Learning with the Conference Board of Canada joined Dr. Amrhein for a rolling dialogue on the same topic at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Victoria.

Through these discussions, we heard that like many governments worldwide, the Government of Canada wants post-secondary education to align with their skills agenda. But as a result of our constitutional particularities, there is no coordinated national conversation about post-secondary education and skills. We heard the familiar story of governments expecting universities to expand their mandates without any commensurate increase in funding – in fact, in the face of government deficits, the prospect of funding cuts is very real. We heard that the world is moving toward a more coordinated, national approach to post-secondary education and if Canada doesn’t do the same we will lose ground.

Using the above definition of skills as their starting point, the Conference Board of Canada has set out to initiate a national dialogue and research program that will lead to the development of a skills and post-secondary education strategy in Canada. Through this initiative, they hope to make Canadian post-secondary education into a more coordinated national system through institutional and organizational changes.

The Conference Board of Canada will soon be releasing a paper that outlines their skills and post-secondary education project and higher education stakeholders will be invited to contribute to the conversation.