Sometimes New Year’s messages write themselves. I mean, it can’t be as bad as last year, right?
The first half of this year is going to be dominated by two issues: Science and Skills. This month, former University of Toronto President David Naylor will release his review of the Government of Canada’s Science Policies. There were a lot of high hopes for this report, some of which are likely going to be disappointed when it actually comes out. Too many people bought into the whole “Harper War on Science” thing and assumed that a new government and a new broom would clean things up and we’d go back to the peaches and cream days of the early-2000s. The fact is, the problems in Canadian Science run a lot deeper than that. I have no doubt the report will lay bare how complex the problems are: the question is whether the government is prepared to take the necessary steps to deal with it (though canning CIHR President Alain Beaudet was a hopeful start).
We’re also going to hear a lot about science through the Minister for Innovation, Navdeep Bains. I’m going to go lightly on this one because I suspect I will have to weigh in on this repeatedly over the course of the next couple of months. But basically it sounds increasingly like our “innovation” policy is merely a pro-tech industrial policy. The logic, I think, is contained in a recent David Wolfe piece in Policy Options and goes something like this. A) we need a high tech economy, which means adopting tech more intensively throughout the economy (so far so good), B) therefore let’s spend a lot of money on the ICT industry (wait, what? How does that follow?) and C) here are a bunch of things we can do to boost the tech industry (all of which are sensible if you accept point B, less so if you don’t). Universities will no doubt be pleased because there will be money available for tech investments, but as innovation policy it sure looks like a mess.
On the skills side, there are three piece to watch. On the innovation agenda, skills showed up unexpectedly as a fairly large theme in their consultations. But these aren’t “skills” in the Tory sense of “we need more apprentices”; it’s much more about having specific highly-qualified personnel in various science and tech fields. For the most part that’s going to be handled by immigration, but the government is making (frankly idiotic) noises about “more STEM graduates” (even though there’s little evidence that this is a problem) and more coding in schools. This is part of a long-standing problematic bias in Canada public policy: any time we have a problem in some area, we assume it’s a quantity problem not a quality problem. This needs to change.
There are two other skill-related pieces coming in the next couple of months. The first is that the Advisory Council on Economic Growth is meant to have a piece out fairly shortly on skills. It was supposed to be out in late December, but for some reason it was yanked and delayed until January (one possibility: the initial set of recommendations didn’t test well among the people the government trusts on economic issues). The second is the Expert Panel on Youth Employment, chaired by Vass Bednar. I have literally no idea what the latter will say: there are not a lot of clues in the panel’s interim report, but it seems certain to bring yet more attention to the skills issue. Possibly, all this adds up to some early actions on skills in a February budget but that may be a little rushed.
That’s the big stuff for the next couple of months. On top of that, there will be the usual shenanigans on various campuses (it’s budget season, and that’s always good for some laughs). The British Columbia election is scheduled for May 9th, and presumably that will be an occasion for opening up the goodie box – we’ll see if higher education gets included. Globally, the big issues will remain Brexit and its ramifications for UK higher education, and China’s attitude towards foreign higher education.
You’re now completely ready for the new year. Onwards and upwards!