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The need to create added-value products and services has spread through all sectors, from gold mining to data mining.

As the Calgary community knows better than any other, the so-called “old economy” – the natural resource sector - is in reality a driving force of the new economy, requiring higher order technologies, advanced knowledge and next-generation innovation.

The oil sands are an example of the transition that is taking place. We’ve moved from pumping oil and gas from the ground; to manufacturing oil; to creating from oil, new industries based on new technologies for its production and utilization. The creativity to imagine these things, the knowledge to design them, and the partnerships that will market them, more often than not, emerge from our universities.

Calgarians are committed to education. And while many of the city’s population have completed a post-high-school education, too few have university degrees. Over the past decade, Alberta’s post-secondary institutions (colleges) have grown considerably to meet strong demand. Nonetheless, the 2005 Calgary Human Capital Project concluded, “access and enrolment to post-secondary education remain critical issues.”

In this regard, McGill has served Alberta as a strong partner. We count ourselves fortunate to have nearly 600 extraordinary students from Alberta enrolled at McGill this academic year, an increase of 25 per cent over the past five years alone, making up an important part of the 2,000 current McGill students who come from Western Canada.

The talent flow runs in both directions. In fact, more than 3,500 McGill alumni live and work in Alberta, and 11,000 in Western Canada combined. They are involved in virtually every sector of Alberta’s society and economy. I am thinking of McGill alumns such as: David O’Brien, Chairman of the boards of Encana and the Royal Bank of Canada and member of McGill’s Campaign Cabinet; Dr. Richard Walls, Chairman of Fairborne Energy Ltd. and co-chair with his wife, Carolina, of our Calgary Campaign; Patricia Lee, Shell’s Chief Geologist for Western Canada; Jacqueline Sheppard, Executive Vice-President, Corporate and Legal, and Corporate Secretary for Talisman Energy, Robert J. Ritchie, former CEO of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and, I cannot forget my good friend, Dr. Harvey Weingarten, President of the University of Calgary, and his colleague, Dr. Rose Goldstein, VP Research at U of C.

The McGill-Alberta partnership shows that Alberta’s people shortage can benefit from national strength. When industry has to compete to grow, as it does now everywhere, it needs the best people it can find. To achieve this, it looks to partnerships and strategic alliances.

To meet the demands of regions experiencing rapid change, Canada’s universities must be agile and strategic so that – as a nation – Canada can be strengthened, not weakened with the ebbs and flows of demographic and economic forces.

So let’s take stock of how Canada is doing on the education front. To be sure, Canada is blessed with a strong and differentiated university system: there is a wonderful set of options for students to choose from, right across the country. But to take advantage of it, students must first graduate from high school. We must work with families and communities to improve high school completion rates among Canadians and to foster a strong expectation that young people can, and will, complete a university education – focussing especially on those who will be the first in their family to do so.

Compared with OECD countries, Canada performs reasonably well in terms of participation in higher education. A report by the Conference Board of Canada comparing our nation with 16 OECD countries shows that we lead our peers in community college participation, as Alberta leads Canada in this regard. With Canada’s high demand for skilled trades, this is noteworthy and good. However, we fall seriously behind in terms of advanced degrees which drive economic, health, prosperity and social well-being. The Conference Board termed our graduation rate of doctoral students as strikingly low, and of undergraduates as only moderate.

We need to raise degree completion rates significantly over the next decade. We must now devise and implement a strategy across Canada that will increase the number of undergraduate degrees awarded by over 50 percent and triple the number of research-based Master’s and doctoral degrees.

Why are we in this boat?

According to the Conference Board report, “Canada’s comparative weaknesses in high-level academic achievement—and associated weaknesses in innovation” stem, in part, from a lack of political will at all levels to incent excellence, and the failure to support effectively the differentiated missions of universities.

In other words, we have succumbed to a Canadian weakness - not making the tough but important strategic choices - and as a result – spreading our resources too thin. We must outgrow our outmoded belief that all public policy should be equalization policy; that equalization is the cornerstone of Canadian identity - because it is hindering our performance in achieving excellence and distinction on the world stage, and thereby undermining local success.

We must develop a national as well as local strategy. One that recognizes the value of differentiated missions of Canada’s companies and regions as well as our institutions of higher education. Our regional universities develop valuable talent and knowledge not only, but primarily, to support local communities and their economies. While our top research universities play a key role in advancing our cities, and Canada, on the national and international stages for local and country-wide benefit.

We must develop mechanisms that acknowledge and strategically support these different missions, with clear goals and performance metrics for each, as other successful jurisdictions have done from California to China.

Measuring and advancing our progress and performance systematically and rigorously, against key competitors in other countries will be key to our success. This is as true for companies and cities and nations, as it is for universities. We have to reward exceptional quality – in training, teaching, research, transfer of knowledge, and industry. Simply put, we must attract, support and develop the very best.