Four higher ed innovations Canada might consider

Big ideas from Switzerland, Tennessee, Israel and Australia

Canada has fallen behind or is at risk of falling behind other countries in education and training if we don’t get our act together. That was a common theme at two conferences last week in Toronto, one hosted by The Conference Board of Canada, which is developing a Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education, and the other by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, a provincial agency that does research and offers policy advice to government. Speakers from several countries offered innovative ideas worth considering. Here are four of the most intriguing.

Switzerland streams into vocations

The Swiss government encourages apprenticeships and, unlike in Canada, 40 per cent of companies take them on. Many high school students are streamed into vocations starting at age 11 or 12 and are in factories or offices getting job experience by 15 or 16. “In Canada, if you have a university degree you’re somebody [but] vocational not so much,” said Urs Obrist, an Embassy of Switzerland expert who spoke at the CBOC conference. In Switzerland, he said, people accept that, “some horses are work horses, some are show jumpers and some are race horses.” However, the system is flexible enough that “late bloomers” can change streams. He pointed out that Switzerland has a very low youth unemployment rate. In 2012, 8.4 per cent of Swiss aged 15 to 24 were unemployed, the second lowest among 33 rich countries. Canada was 12th at 14.3 per cent.

Australia offers a really good website

Australia’s federal government offers MyUniversity, a website that shows all the programs available nationwide along with information like student satisfaction, entering grades and links to government data about job prospects. Someone considering a history degree can click and see that the job “historian” has a below average outlook. Similar information is available in at Working In Canada but that isn’t in front of most students’ faces when they’re shopping for programs.

Israel and China partnered with a billionaire

Countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and China are aggressively building universities and looking for partners, Da Hsuan Feng of National Tsing Hua University told the HEQCO conference. Billionaire Li Ka-shing gave $130 million to the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology to build an English-language technical university in Guandong, China in partnership with Shantou University. Technion was chosen because it’s “like a U.S. university [but] minus the arrogance,” he said. (The lesson for Canadian officials: don’t be arrogant toward potential partners.) Some funds will go to upgrading Technion’s Haifa campus so both countries benefit. Despite its quality, he said, the University of Toronto isn’t on the radar.

Tennessee switched to performance-based funding

Richard Rhoda of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission told the HEQCO meeting how his state now bases funding on measures like the number of degrees awarded, time to graduation, job outcomes and how many low-income students and adults are accepted. Since switching to performance-based funding in 2012, he said colleges are “far more interested in student success.”

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