Election-Year Thoughts on Building Economic Prosperity
February 21, 2018

A strong Ontario economy requires strong foundations. Talented workers, a robust health care system, a confident business sector, active community and not-for-profit organizations, and groundbreaking researchers and entrepreneurs – these are the pieces that keep Ontario thriving.

Ontario’s universities are a vital part of this continuum, and we put a premium on working with our partners in businesses, government, the not-for-profit sector, and elsewhere in order to drive a strong and growing economy.

As the Ontario election approaches, the economy and the jobs that sustain it will naturally be front of mind for voters and central to the policy debates among candidates and parties. There are some topical issues that will likely be hashed out between the rival parties on the campaign trail. These include the rising cost of inputs such as labour and energy – factors that are weighing on the minds of some in the business community, as a new Business Confidence Survey from the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC) makes clear. And while job growth and similar economic indicators in the province are more positive, there are external risk factors, such as the uncertain fate of NAFTA, that also cloud the horizon.

While important, these are immediate, near-term issues. What we at Ontario’s Universities also hope to see serious debate on during the campaign are the policies and solutions that will encourage long-term prosperity in a future transformed by technological and social change.

In our recent report Partnering for a Better Future for Ontario, we laid out the kinds of long-term solutions that postsecondary institutions can help bring about through partnerships with employers, the non-profit sector, government and fellow public-sector institutions. We took the lead from what Ontarians had told us, in a year-long listening campaign, that they wanted to see – collaborative and innovative thinking to develop talent, create secure jobs, and build stronger public services and communities.

A highly-talented workforce – created by strong educational institutions working hand-in-hand with stakeholders in business, industry and society – is number one among our priorities. Ontario’s current talent pool is already an international calling card, as Toronto’s inclusion on the short list for Amazon’s second headquarters demonstrates. But in our report, Ontario’s universities committed themselves to further expanding key inputs such as STEM graduates and experiential learning opportunities, so that the province remains competitive deeper into the century.

Ontario benefits not only from talent that is created in-house, as it were, but imported from around the world. The bright minds that arrive as international students often stay in the province after graduation to contribute to its innovation and prosperity. (It’s worth nothing that two of the five winners of the 2017 Polanyi Prizes came to Ontario as international researchers). We strongly support more graduate and research opportunities for international students – in recent weeks, for instance, Brock University said it would fully fund tuition fees for international doctoral students, while the University of Toronto has lowered fees for international PhD students to the same level as domestic students.

We also believe that research and innovation are a cornerstone of Ontario’s continued prosperity. Whether it’s in industry, technologies such as artificial intelligence, advanced engineering or health sciences (a sector identified by the OCC as having great economic potential), the new ideas and inventions born in Ontario need sustained support and investment so they can be commercialized in Ontario.

An important sibling of research and innovation is the entrepreneurism that turns the great ideas into new companies and new jobs. Universities have created a large network of campus incubators to sustain this effort, and will continue to expand these and other innovation-driving initiatives.

Our report also recommended that government support these wealth-creating initiatives through the encouragement of “clusters” – geographic centres of R and D in specific technological fields. We were delighted to learn last week that Ottawa will be funding an “advanced manufacturing” supercluster in the Toronto-Hamilton-Waterloo tech corridor, involving universities, innovation hubs and major companies.

Such initiatives promote the partnerships that grow Ontario’s economy and increase prosperity for the long term. Ontario’s universities are engaged in being active members in all such partnerships, working together for a better future for all.