On March 6, 2012, after serving twelve years as Dean of the Sauder School of Business at UBC, Dr. Daniel Muzyka was named President and CEO of The Conference Board of Canada. Soon after taking office, Dr. Muzyka launched a multi-year initiative to develop a national strategy for skills and post-secondary education (PSE). The Conference Board has considerable experience in such initiatives, having tackled other significant challenges to Canada’s prosperity. Recent examples include developing a national food strategy (Centre for Food in Canada), addressing the unsustainability of health care financing (Canadian Alliance for Sustainable Health Care), and improving firm-level innovation performance (Centre for Business Innovation).

With a similar multi-stakeholder, research-driven approach, the Conference Board’s new Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education (SPSE) is convening stakeholders from governments, business, and PSE institutions, with the goal of building a shared vision and plan for graduating more people with advanced skills and promoting world-class PSE institutions in Canada. Ultimately, the initiative will be successful if it helps achieve a more competitive national footing within a rapidly evolving global economy.

The Conference Board is an independent, evidence-based, not-for-profit applied research organization. With a staff of 200 and a mandate to investigate and share insights on the biggest issues facing Canada, our research findings carry weight with leaders in government, business, and the general public. More than other not-for-profit organizations in Canada, the Conference Board has a capacity to convene leaders and key decision-makers to discuss and take action on major economic, social, business, and policy challenges facing Canada. We recognize the value and contribution of Canada’s PSE system, but believe that there are challenges to the system’s viability that require attention and opportunities to enhance its performance both at home and on the world stage.

Both faculty and graduate students will be deeply interested in our effort to assess and enhance Canada’s system for advancing skills development, and blending that objective with the competitiveness of our PSE institutions.


PSE in Canada, as elsewhere, faces many challenges. In fact, this may be the most challenging period for PSE institutions since the turmoil of the sixties. Student demographics are changing, and the number of non-traditional PSE learners (part-time, mid-career professional, adult, and lifelong students) in North America has never been higher.1 Global competition is also increasing for top faculty and international students. Domestically, students and their families, as well as some governments, are resisting further increases in tuition and fees. In short, the needs of learners are changing and competition for the people and resources to address those needs is rising.

There are also widespread concerns and debate about skills mismatches and the implications for both employers and graduates looking for well-paid, meaningful work. The Conference Board’s own work reveals that, although there is not yet an economy-wide aggregate shortage of skilled workers, there are critical skills shortages in key sectors and regions affecting about one-fifth of occupations.2 Others suggest that the the issue is overblown.3 Still, even these skeptics argue that “there is some evidence of mismatch across certain occupations and provinces” and that “delaying appropriate actions to maximize labor market efficiency until a ‘burning platform’ emerges is ill-advised and imprudent.”4

As if all of this was not sufficient to keep academic leaders busy, governments and industry are urging PSE institutions to better align their activities with other key government priorities, such as productivity and competitiveness, sustainable health care, and innovation. There are concerns about a disconnect between student enrollment and the needs of the economy, and a perceived failure of curricula to teach the skills necessary for students to obtain jobs on graduation. This second shortcoming is seen to exist at both the undergraduate and graduate level (and perhaps even the post-doctoral level). Misalignment is also evident in the alleged lack of support universities offer to commercialization and new company creation.

Data from Statistics Canada indicate that almost 70 per cent of Canadians with doctorate degrees do not find full employment in traditional academic jobs.5 North America alone produces almost fifty thousand doctoral graduates a year, and competition for the relatively small number of academic vacancies is global. If Canada’s universities continue to produce PhDs at such high rates, they need to come to terms with the reality that the majority of doctoral graduates will need preparation for employment in non-academic settings. This is a point raised frequently by graduate student organizations in discussions with graduate deans. As Dr. Douglas Peers, history professor, Dean of Arts at the University of Waterloo, and Past President of the Canadian Association for Graduate Students, notes in an interview with University Affairs magazine: “There have always been fewer jobs [in academia] than there are PhDs, so PhD students have always had to adapt themselves. Where we have been slow as institutions is in recognizing what we can do to help them adapt, and I think it is a role that more and more of us are taking on.”6

In the face of these many challenges, how will the Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education help to address them?

The Key Players

AmrheimArticleOne of the features of the Conference Board initiative is its big tent approach. The stakeholder group is deliberately defined very broadly—including universities, colleges, polytechnics, employers, industry, and other sectors of the economy, cities and communities, and governments at all levels. Traditionally, many of these stakeholders have tended to be insular in their activities relating to the advancement of knowledge and skills. But for the development of a Canadian strategy for skills and PSE, the Conference Board proposes to integrate the contributions of each into a cohesive whole. The extent to which graduate students and faculty in Canada’s PSE institutions see these connections and build on them during the period ahead will be important.

Emerging Ideas

In preparation for its National Summit on Skills and Post-Secondary Education—the first major SPSE event, held in Toronto on November 6 and 7, 2013—the Conference Board conducted over seventy consultations with academic leaders in universities, polytechnics, and colleges, as well as groups such as the Association of Universities and Colleges Canada, the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies, the Association of Community Colleges Canada, and Polytechnics Canada. We met with government officials from across Canada, leaders in industry, and student leaders, and will continue to engage people in academia, government, and the private sector in the months and years ahead.

We have heard many concerns, ideas, and proposed solutions for the PSE system as a whole, as well as some major themes directly relevant to graduate studies. There is a complex landscape of institutions offering master’s and doctoral degrees, emerging interest on the part of other institutions (such as some colleges and polytechnics) to do so, and a diversity of concerns among all stakeholders. Prominent themes emerging frequently in conversations include:

1. There is a need for the Canadian PSE sector to define a clear and consistent message to the world about the content and value of a Canadian degree in general, and a postgraduate degree in particular. This need arises from an increasingly competitive global environment for postgraduate talent. We heard that Canada needs to make clear the value of a Canadian postgraduate degree in order to continue to attract students and to enable graduates to compete for postdoctoral positions; employment in industry, government, and other sectors of the economy; and the academy in other countries.

2. There is a need to create more opportunities for students to acquire the skills needed in diverse employment settings. Whether they are called soft skills, employability skills, essential skills, and/or transferable skills, they include effective communication (writing and speaking), teamwork, critical-thinking and problem-solving, basic business administration, entrepreneurship, and resume-writing and interview skills for non-academic settings. A variety of avenues offer these skills in for-credit and not-for-credit environments.7

3. There is a need to create opportunities for graduate students to develop their problem-solving skills in interdisciplinary settings. Canada produces extremely effective and competitive graduate students, but we are less successful in encouraging these students to work across disciplines. Yet, the non-academic settings in which most graduates find themselves require interdisciplinary teamwork. At the  doctoral level, graduates are frequently called on to lead such teams.

4. There is a desire on the part of many students to experience multi-institutional settings as part of their programs. For example, a student in environmental policy at a school in Toronto might benefit from a period of residency at an institution in Newfoundland, British Columbia, or Alberta as part of a doctoral program. Joint degrees, sandwiched degrees, and dual degrees are increasingly common as part of international partnerships. Some universities have clear guidelines and policies on these arrangements (such as the University of Alberta’s Shared Credentials Policy). In some institutions, there are already provisions for professors from different universities to join doctoral supervisory committees. There are also provisions for students to visit other institutions as part of their programs. Overall, there is a sense that greater flexibility and cooperation among Canadian institutions would benefit students heading into non-academic settings.

There are many questions and details that need to be sorted out (including accountability arrangements for programs offered in cooperation with institutions outside of a given jurisdiction). But, if such arrangements can be successfully implemented with foreign partners, one might assume we should be able to reach similar arrangements within Canada.

5. Building on the idea of joint degrees, Canada should explore the creation of a post-baccalaureate free mobility zone. Modeled on the European Erasmus program, this mobility zone would allow students to move among a set of institutions in a consortia in which admission is reciprocal, and access to data, equipment, and peers is part of an organized program of exchange. Students would still be registered at a single institution, but their academic program would be flexible, and could be designed from the outset to produce graduates ready to work in non-academic settings.

6. Finally, there is a need for post-baccalaureate students to have significant exposure to non-academic settings—including placements in industry, government, or NGOs—as part of education and training in their fields of specialization. There are models in other countries that feature this type of experiential learning. As with undergraduate initiatives (such as co-ops, community service learning, internships, study abroad opportunities, etc.), these experiences may give students a leg up upon graduation.

Research and Dialogue

The ideas and suggestions outlined above have emerged from a set of preliminary discussions with key players. Whether any of the ideas makes sense for Canada is unclear. A key aspect of the Conference Board’s research agenda in the months ahead will be to explore the relevance and feasibility of such ideas and their connection to the larger challenges and opportunities facing the PSE system. Following a review of the state-of-the system and the economic impact of the existing structures of PSE in Canada, a phase of needs assessment research will be undertaken. Critical in this phase will be discussions with leaders of the graduate student community, Deans of the Graduate Schools, and international officers.

A great deal of work lies ahead to determine whether these and other proposals make sense and whether they can and should be implemented, either in whole or in part. In order to continue to serve our graduate students effectively, Canada needs to understand the changing employment situation confronting our students as they approach graduation, and make collective decisions to serve them better. Clearly,there are many ideas that need to be investigated and discussed and the Conference Board looks forward to further engaging with the academic community and others to ensure that we identify the right measures to enhance Canada’s world-class PSE system.

Carl G. Amrhein is the Provost and Vice-President (Academic) of The University of Alberta, and Visiting Executive at The Conference Board of Canada. Michael Bloom is the Vice President, Organizational Effectiveness and Learning, at The Conference Board of Canada. Diana MacKay is the Director, Education & Immigration, at The Conference Board of Canada. For more information about the Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education, please visit www.conferenceboard.ca/spse.

1. Aoun, J. (2013). “The Rise of the Rest.” Presentation to the Canadian Universities in a Global Context conference, June 26, 2013. www.northeastern.edu/seattle/the-rise-of-the-rest-keynote-address-bypresident-joseph-e-aoun (accessed September 3, 2013).
2. Stuckey, J. & Munro, D. (2013). The Need to Make Skills Work: The Cost of Ontario’s Skills Gap. Ottawa: Conference Board of Canada.
3. Burleton, D., Gulati, S., McDonald, C., & Scarfone, S. (2013). Jobs in Canada: Where, What and For Whom? Toronto: TD Economics.
4. Burleton, D., Gulati, S., McDonald, C., & Scarfone, S. (2013). Jobs in Canada: Where, What and For Whom? Toronto: TD Economics. Pgs. 1, 5.
5. Tamburri, R. (2013). Give us the Dirt on Jobs. University Affairs, January 11, 2010. www.universityaffairs.ca/give-us-the-dirt-on-jobs.aspx (accessed September 3, 2013).
6. Galt, V. (2011). Professional development for grad students. University Affairs, September 12, 2011. www.universityaffairs.ca/professionaldevelopment-for-grad-students.aspx (accessed September 3, 2013).
7. See The Conference Board of Canada’s Education and Skills Products www.conferenceboard.ca/topics/education/learning-tools.aspx  and McGill’s award winning professional development program SkillSet.  www.mcgill.ca/skillsets