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Canada must make profound changes to succeed: Lynch

Kevin Lynch offers stark choices for Canada in recent public lectures.


In a quickly changing world marked by increased globalization, a shift in the balance of economic power towards emerging economies, and a shrinking workforce, Canadian governments, businesses and universities will have to make profound changes, said Kevin Lynch, a former high-ranking civil servant and currently vice-chairman of BMO Financial Group.

“The status quo is not an option anymore,” said Dr. Lynch in a speech at a conference of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario held Nov. 1 in Toronto. Dr. Lynch called on universities to collaborate with businesses in order to boost Canada’s flagging productivity, to concentrate resources into key research areas, and to work together to build a Canadian brand for higher education in overseas markets. (He made similar observations delivering the 2012 Killam Lecture at the University of Ottawa Nov. 5.)

Echoing the recent Jenkins report, Dr. Lynch told the Toronto audience that Canadian universities and businesses exist as two solitudes. Canada, he said, has strong research-intensive institutions and a strong business sector. “What we don’t have is interaction between the two,” he said. “If you put the two together, you get magic and that magic is innovation.”
Increased cooperation and collaboration between the two sectors will become increasingly important for Canada as China overtakes the United States (Canada’s largest trading partner by far) as the world’s fastest growing economy. By the end of the decade, Asia is expected to account for close to 50 percent of global GDP growth, he noted.

At the same time, Western societies are aging and the proportion of working Canadians is shrinking. Unless that smaller workforce becomes more productive, Canadians will have to lower their standard of living. The only way to boost Canada’s competitiveness without lowering wages is to increase productivity, he said.

Yet, Canada’s productivity is declining, Dr. Lynch noted. Its productivity growth during the last decade has been the worst since the end of the Second World War. Canada ranks 20th among the world’s most industrialized countries in terms of private-sector spending on research and development. “How are we going to win in a world that needs more productivity and innovation?” he asked.

Dr. Lynch chairs the board of governors at the University of Waterloo and sits on the board of Cape Breton University’s Shannon School of Business. He was just named a trustee of the Killam Foundation, effective January 2013. Before his retirement from the federal public service in 2009, Dr. Lynch served as Clerk of the Privy Council, Secretary to the Cabinet and head of the Public Service of Canada. He is also a former deputy minister of finance and of industry.

In his Toronto speech, Dr. Lynch urged universities to work collectively to create a national brand for Canadian higher education, rather than seek to boost individual profiles. When you go abroad “your brand is your country” first, and then it’s your particular institution, he said. “If you think in India or China you can brand University X or Community College Y in a hugely complex world, you’re crazy.”

Other countries “would give their eye teeth” for the advantages that Canada enjoys, such as its comparatively solid economic and fiscal performance, its abundance of natural resources and its strong institutions, he said. “We have it, but we haven’t created it into a brand. That’s part of our challenge.”

Canadian universities should also concentrate resources into areas of key research strengths. “I think we have to win some Nobel prizes,” he said. “We put a huge amount of money into research and universities in Canada but we aren’t winning the prizes we should be winning.” Doing so would validate for Canadians that the spending of large amount of tax dollars to support higher education was the right move, he said. It would show Canadian researchers that they are among the best in the world and it would make universities better able to attract excellent researchers from other countries.

But winning high-profile prizes will require making choices, he added. The Perimeter Institute, on whose board Dr. Lynch sits, shows what can be achieved when resources are focused, he said.

Dr. Lynch delivered very similar messages in delivering the prestigious Killam Lecture held a few days later at the University of Ottawa, with the Governor General David Johnston in attendance. In Ottawa, Dr. Lynch made three final suggestions:

  • Canada needs to establish a productivity and innovation council that would benchmark competitors and global best practices and share this information with business.
  • Canada should consider establishing about five world-leading applied-research institutes that would be aligned with targeted sectors and Canada’s strengths, where Canada has a chance of becoming world-class – it would involve taking risks, he said. The institutes would represent a partnership between industry, government and universities.
  • Canada must look outward for new partners. Students need to be equipped to think globally, and universities need to consider more second-language requirements, opportunities for study abroad and more innovative curriculum.

Canada does have individuals who innovate, but “no one would rank Canada as an innovation nation or a nation of innovators,” concluded Dr. Lynch. “Being average isn’t good enough. We need to be more ambitious and that requires transformation.”

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  1. Keith Taylor / November 7, 2012 at 15:38

    With respect to Dr. Lynch’s second closing point above, it is suggested the we already have the makings of the five labs in the form of some sub-set of existing NRC labs. That organization has been largely stripped in the last two decades of its basic research mandate in many areas in favour of applied research. However, its human complement has withered–perhaps the existing ‘hardware and software’ of these institutes could serve to kick-start Dr. Lynch’s institutes without their having to start from scratch.

  2. Joseph / November 10, 2012 at 12:14

    Similar arguments are being made elsewhere as well:

  3. Yves Gingras / November 29, 2012 at 06:00

    This kind of discourse about getting more Nobel prizes and creating 5 (why 5?) “world-level” research centers is typical of self-proclaimed “experts” on the future of Canadian universities who promote magical thinking and have in fact minimal knowledge of the basic missions of universities. Following them is the best way to destroy the complexity of university education and research. Saying that there is no link between universities and industries is simply false and again based on ignorance. Managaging a bank does not make one an expert in everything…

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