Letter to the Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development

Publication Type

Dear Minister Bains, 

As you consider the many ideas that have surfaced from your consultations on innovation, we are writing to provide you with our thoughts as the co-chairs of the Business Higher Education Roundtable (BHER).

As you may be aware, BHER was launched in 2015 to promote collaboration between industry and post-secondary education institutions in support of young Canadians as they transition from education to the workplace, strengthen research collaboration between industry and institutions, and help Canadian employers as they adapt to the economy of the future. It is made up of 24 leaders from the private sector, universities, colleges and polytechnics. Together, we educate hundreds of thousands of students in diverse programs and employ millions of Canadians in a broad range of industrial sectors across the country.

We are encouraged to see that talent has become one of your key priorities in moving towards an innovation agenda. People drive innovation. For all its benefits, technology is only as useful as the human minds and hands that can build, reshape, and drive it towards new frontiers. Building an inclusive future for Canadians means unleashing the creativity of our young people, capitalizing on our intellectual capacity, and developing the skills necessary to navigate a rapidly-changing world. Canadian businesses and post-secondary institutions are partnering in innovative ways to help shape these outcomes. Through BHER, we are focused on contributing to Canada’s Innovation Agenda with a focus on two priority areas:

1. Supporting the development of talent for a knowledge economy

Not much more than a generation ago, Canada was one of a relatively small group of industrialized economies that could afford to provide their citizens with high-quality public education. Today, the competition is much tougher. Countries that were once poor and low-skilled are making unprecedented investments in education and training. Fortunately, Canada has one of the most highly skilled and educated workforces in the world and post-secondary institutions that are globally recognized for their excellence in teaching and research. Building on these assets, Canada has an opportunity to enhance its talent base and become a magnet for the world’s most creative, entrepreneurial and skilled people. Some areas of focus for this include:

  • Building bridges between classrooms and workplaces. This is a top priority for BHER, which last June announced a commitment to help ensure that 100 per cent of students have access to some form of work-integrated learning (WIL) prior to graduation. Our estimates suggest that 50 per cent of university students and approximately 65 to 70 per cent of college and polytechnic students currently participate in some type of WIL program. Currently, BHER is focused on increasing the number of WIL opportunities that exist for students while also working to meet specific industry-identified skills gaps through the creation of new, high-quality innovative WIL programs. For example, with BHER support RBC has partnered with the Toronto Financial Services Alliance to create a WIL pilot program in the financial services sector in the GTA. The purpose of this program is to accelerate the growth of the in-demand, “work-ready” talent pool attracted to the financial services sector by increasing the quantity and quality of student internships available across the sector, in a coordinated way. Along with national post-secondary institutions, business and student groups, we recommend the federal government take an active role in supporting BHER’s commitment to help students gain valuable work experience while in study.
  • Branding Canada as a destination for top student and academic talent. Canada’s historic reputation as an inclusive, welcoming and diverse country is a strength as demonstrated by the large number of international students currently enrolled in our institutions. In 2015, over 350,000 international students were enrolled in Canadian universities – an increase of 191 per cent over fifteen years. During their time here, international students gain incredibly valuable skills, make long-lasting friendships with Canadian students, and contribute to the economic and intellectual vibrancy of our communities. The federal government should ease the entry of international students into Canada as well as their transition to permanent residency upon graduation.

2. Growing collaborative research partnerships

Canadian-led research drives innovation, strengthens the economy and improves our quality of life. Although many industries and institutional partners have built strong relationships, silos, misaligned incentives, and complex systems complicate broader co-operation. Better linkages and shared objectives among key players across the innovation ecosystem – from idea generators and basic scientists to entrepreneurs and R&D specialists at large multi-national enterprises – will lead to more commercialization and greater growth of Canadian companies. Specific areas that require focus to build stronger research partnerships include:

  • Building large scale research consortia. Industry-led clusters and consortia are effective mechanisms to identify sector-wide research and business challenges, pool resources, collaborate on R&D, and interface with the wider innovation ecosystem. It is only through concentrated focus on a limited number of sector clusters that we will be able to achieve the scale needed to have an impact on the global stage. The federal government should use its significant convening power to grow successful Canadian clusters that already exist (e.g. COSIA and CRIAQ) and to facilitate the development of new industry-led clusters.
  • Supporting the creation of industry-led Grand Challenges. Grand Challenges provide another mechanism through which to convene top talent from across the country to tackle specific R&D challenges. They provide an opportunity to leverage and capitalize on both Canada’s research and business strengths. While successful examples of these initiatives exist at the level of individual companies, we see opportunity for an even greater impact at a broader national or sectoral level. We recommend that the federal government work with BHER to establish Grand Challenge prizes for specific mission-driver R&D challenges.

We look forward to working with you, Minister and would be ready to discuss any of these ideas further at your convenience.


Tom Jenkins                                      Anne Sado                                      Elizabeth Cannon

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