Skip navigation

How our universities can compete in the world

A conversation with the Conference Board’s new executive-in-residence Carl Amrhein.


The Conference Board of Canada recently tapped Carl Amrhein, provost and vice-president academic at the University of Alberta, to help create its new Centre on the Future of Post-Secondary Education. The 14-month appointment, expected to run until July 1, 2014, was announced while Dr. Amrhein was on sabbatical from U of A. During his sabbatical he has been conducting research on global issues affecting postsecondary institutions, visiting universities in China, Australia and New Zealand. University Affairs spoke to Dr. Amrhein on the eve of his pending visit to Germany on a range of topics – from skilled workers and labour market needs to downsizing and revenue-generation among postsecondary institutions in Canada.

University Affairs: Can you tell us about the Conference Board’s Centre on the Future of Post-Secondary Education? What types of research will it conduct?

Dr. Amrhein: The overall centre will include all postsecondary institutions like the technical schools, the community colleges, the university-colleges. My role in the initiative is to focus on the university sector. The theme I’m most familiar with is the future of postsecondary education and how we will continue to serve the needs of Canada – locally, provincially and nationally – while at the same time recognizing that, at least in the university sector, we face an increasingly competitive international arena.
So the critical question is how do public universities continue to serve and meet their obligations to the province that funds them, the nation that funds the research, and yet still compete and advance in an international environment where everybody is chasing the same talented people.

UA: You had already started looking at these issues.

Dr. Amrhein: I’ve been trying to understand the role of national governments in the life of the universities. If you take a look at Australia, they have a national ministry and they have a group, Universities Australia, and they have a set of other groups like the Group of Eight [large research-intensive universities]. The national government uses these different subsets of the overall higher education sector to advance the needs of Australia. Canada has no national ministry – unlike China, unlike Australia, somewhat [unlike] Germany [and] the U.S. And yet we as a sector have to compete against systems like Australia that are extremely well organized at the national level.

UA: And that puts us at a disadvantage?

Dr. Amrhein: I think increasingly it does especially in the international arena, because when a country, let’s say Brazil, wants to talk to Canada, they expect to talk to a federal ministry, and there is none, so confusion creeps into the conversation.

UA: How can we get around this, given that the creation of a federal ministry seems unlikely?

Dr. Amrhein: I’m not exactly sure because we have a constitutional reality. We have our historic traditions. We have strong provincial governments that cover an enormous amount of the cost. I’m not exactly sure what the answer is. It is interesting that it’s the Conference Board that has taken up this question.

UA: The issue of skills development, the shortage of skilled workers and the perceived mismatch between graduates’ skills and labour market needs have been in the news a lot lately. Some have warned about a pending crisis and others have dismissed it. What do you make of the debate?

Dr. Amrhein: I think it depends on how you define skills. If you define skilled people as those who, through a combination of experience and training and education, make a useful contribution to the economy and society, then everybody who leaves a university is a skilled person. If you look at all of the graduates from all of the accredited programs – medicine, nursing, pharmacy, engineering, teaching, law, business – these are all exceptionally highly skilled individuals who walk into jobs and walk into labour markets that do not have enough employees. Then there are the technical skilled people: the apprentices, the journeymen, the heavy equipment operators, the pipe welders. There the discussion seems to be more of a mismatch in space. We need them in Northern Alberta and there’s a surplus in Southern Ontario. How do you get them to relocate?
So the word “skilled” is a very confusing word. It is subject to many different definitions. Very often people get into very detailed discussions with great passion and they never stop to define “skilled.” And if they did my guess is most of the debate would disappear. …
The discussion has not been clarified or structured by anybody. I think that’s something we are going to do at the centre and I hope we do it really fast because it is a critical issue but the issue is not as it’s being portrayed.

UA: Often, the portrayal will be anecdotal. People will point to someone with a BA who is working as a barista or driving a cab.

Dr. Amrhein: I think it is risky to assume that someone in a particular job is inefficient, or unproductive or not wanted. History is filled with people who are passionate about a certain area who take any job to pay the bills while they pursue their passion and then turn out some day that they have generated the next breakthrough in digital communication. How many of the billionaires started out as students in their garages because they couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to what they were doing?
The second point is, just because you graduate with a BA, it’s just not fair to conclude that will be a wasted career. A very high percentage of these graduates go on to do other degrees and become lawyers [and] get MBAs. Career tracks are complicated. We know that young people will have many jobs in a career. They move around a lot. I’d argue there is tremendous value for society in seeing well educated people able to accommodate a career of many different jobs.

UA: That said, do you think universities could do a better job of preparing students for the labour market or at the very least provide students with better data about job prospects in certain fields, or the employment outcomes of their graduates?

Dr. Amrhein: Can we do better? Yes, to all three of those. I don’t think we are doing as badly as most people think. I know U of A extremely well. We have an incredibly well-organized and effective job-placement, job-advertising, career-counseling, interview-arranging function. Much of the commentary you see in the popular media comes from – I heard a phrase today “the tyranny of the anecdote” – individuals whose experiences have been extremely frustrating and that experience is viewed as an example of the majority.
It might well be the minority. Universities are not the data collectors for Canada. That would be the job of trade organizations and Statistics Canada. So if the data on labour markets is not available, then yes we want better data but I don’t think you want 100 universities creating their own labour market data groups doing the same analysis 100 different times.

UA: What’s wrong with them having data from their own universities saying this is how many graduates completed last year in engineering, English, etc. and here’s where they found employment?

Dr. Amrhein: In Alberta the provincial government does that. That’s why at the U of A we can say with confidence that graduates from the faculties of arts and social science take a little bit longer to land on their feet but in a stipulated period of time their unemployment rate is no different from say engineering and science.

UA: To switch gears a bit, it’s a tough time now for universities from a fiscal point of view. They are facing budget cuts in virtually every province. Some have started to cut programs and lay people off. Are we in for a prolonged period of downsizing in the postsecondary sector?

Dr. Amrhein: I hope not. Provincial governments have complex balancing acts. So I don’t debate what government actions are taken. I think if you look at Canadian universities and then you compare us to, let’s say, the Australian system, there are ways to generate revenue other than provincial grants and regulated domestic tuition. My sense is, as I’ve looked around, that there are things we can do to generate revenue that would allow us to maintain a rich variety of programs by substituting government grants with other revenues. Also, there are things we can do to allow tuition dollars to work a little bit harder for the institutions.

UA: What sorts of things can universities do to generate new revenue streams?

Dr. Amrhein: If we look around the world, the concept of lifelong learning is a reality – in part because professional knowledge changes a lot, in part because people’s careers change. In a professional context there is a need for flexible, probably online, delivery of advanced credentialing – call it continuing professional development, if you like. And people who have jobs are willing to pay a premium for high-quality, well-organized, online, flexible programs.
Other universities have been exploiting this for some time. I think we will be successful if we choose to get into this game, and it’s not a game we should avoid, in my opinion. We should embrace it and run with it. It diversifies income. But it also puts our name out there and that helps when you recruit faculty, staff and students . … We can do this with a small number of courses and award a certificate or we can do it for a larger number of courses and deploy a master’s degree. I think there’s a niche out there that Canadian universities can fill. And often employers are willing to pay if the quality is right.

UA: Fiscal concerns aside, what other issues do you see confronting postsecondary institutions today?

Dr. Amrhein: Well, we face an environment where we see the emergence of very large and very well-funded national systems [like] India, China and Brazil. As Chinese universities become more and more English- based in their delivery, at least among the top-ranked national universities, the competition for the very best professorial talent is becoming extremely intense. … And there’s a question in my mind as to how Canada will continue to successfully compete. We’ve done very well but we face fiscal restraints, we face aging infrastructure, we face equipment replacement. That’s one of the threats I see. There is competition for the very best students. As research becomes more team-based and multidisciplinary, students become even more important than they used to be, and the very best students are prized by lots of people. So that’s another area. Canada, I think, has to do more to provide easy, competitive access for the very best international students. We’ve seen provincial governments back away from embracing the international reality of our sector.

UA: The notion that universities do a good job of educating students or the value of a university degree seems to be under attack. Do you remember another time when universities were challenged as they are now?

Dr. Amrhein: No, not in the period I’ve been an administrator. There was a time when a university’s responsibility was to educate and graduate and then industry stepped in and took care of that next step of educating a person to the needs of the company. Companies, for competitive reasons globally, have backed away from in-house [training] and are expecting institutions to deliver students ready to perform in a specific industrial setting. I think that’s part of the challenge. I think the utilitarian attitude that whatever I do I have to convert into some useful, productive, paying activity is an attitude I don’t fully understand. … It’s not the kind of view of the value of education that was presented to me by my parents.
I still believe that education is intrinsically in and of itself a good thing. If you want to monetize it, the statistics on lifetime earnings are overwhelmingly in favour of more education. So the critics of the value of an education are ignoring powerful statistical evidence. And they also are ignoring the reality of career tracks where you will change jobs many times and you need that set of skills and coping strategies to adjust to rapidly changing employment settings. I think the debate is misinformed.

UA: Do you remain optimistic about Canada’s postsecondary sector?

Dr. Amrhein: Yes, I’m optimistic. I believe in the value of a university as an institution. I believe that the universities are inextricably tied to the success of the nation, not just financially but culturally and in terms of government. I think it is an important and worrisome reality today that Canada is backing away to a certain extent from investing in higher education at the very moment other powerful systems are investing heavily. I believe that Canada will return to that. I don’t know when and I’ll do everything I can to make sure it’s next year, not years from now. But we cannot take for granted public support and I think universities need to be a little more diligent in making the case to society.

Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Virginia Stead / May 9, 2013 at 14:27

    I applaud Dr. Amrhein’s profound understanding of the value of Canada’s universities, underscored by his concluding remark,”But we cannot take for granted public support and I think universities need to be a little more diligent in making the case to society.” Perhaps this case might be fortified by clear, brief explanations about the value that accrues to every individual, at every level of society, every time we celebrate a new university graduate. These graduates, collectively and irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation, ancestry, ethnicity, first languages, nationality, religion, ability, or age strengthen our social, economic, and intellectual fabric as a nation and as a member of the global community.

Click to fill out a quick survey