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Colleges to Liberals: we don’t have enough buildings for students

Mohawk College president Ron McKerlie, centre, talking with Tyler Facchini, left, and Jonathon Brunathin in a robotics lab, says his school can’t keep up with demand for skilled-trades grads.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

As Hamilton's Mohawk College approaches 50 years old, the buildings are creaking and bursting at the seams. The school is fundraising for two new projects, to serve day-to-day scholarship and to be more adaptive to real-life training needs.

One is a multipurpose learning centre where budding tradespeople would work together – carpenters, plumbers, electricians – to learn how to work in harmony on the job. The other would be an innovation centre for applied research, with room for industry partners to work on projects with students directly.

Both projects still need millions more dollars to break ground. The existing buildings at Mohawk, which is running close to 95 per cent occupancy, "are great for movie shoots, but they're not useful for training the next generation of technologists and engineers," school president Ron J. McKerlie says.

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Like college administrators across the country, Mr. McKerlie is looking to Justin Trudeau's new Liberal government to invest in education infrastructure. Colleges are traditionally the jurisdiction of the provinces, but they need the federal government to loosen its purse strings, too, to help them catch up to today's employment trends.

Funding for facilities and equipment is not their only demand: As colleges emerge as leaders in applied research, they are hoping that federal funding bodies will deliver there, too. They are also angling for support to help broaden postsecondary access for underrepresented groups, including indigenous people.

It will be some time before the Liberals reveal their first budget. Their election platform suggests they will double federal infrastructure funding to $125-billion over the next 10 years, though there are few details about priorities aside from the need for public transit, social and green infrastructure.

Colleges and Institutes Canada, which represents 135 publicly funded education institutions, hopes that a dedicated parcel of money from the New Building Canada Fund will go toward postsecondary institutions. CICan also urges renewal of the Knowledge Infrastructure Program, which a few years ago funded $2-billion in postsecondary buildings and deferred maintenance across Canada.

In a survey of its members, CICan found that more than 60 per cent of the infrastructure at Canada's applied training institutions has exceeded its 40-year life expectancy and requires significant maintenance or total replacement.

"Many of our colleges and institutes are unfortunately at or near enrolment capacity, which is resulting in wait lists for programs in high-demand fields like nursing, engineering technology, carpentry, plumbing and welding," says Denise Amyot, CICan's president and chief executive officer.

But putting up new buildings is just a start. "Employers need graduates who can hit the ground running and are capable of using state-of-the-art facilities and equipment," she says.

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"So equipment upgrades are critical."

That's what Mohawk College, which Mr. Trudeau toured last month, is looking for.

"The demand in Hamilton is far greater than we're able to fill with our current capacity," Mr. McKerlie says. "The manufacturing sector in Hamilton is looking for more technologists and skilled trades-workers. ... We can't put enough people through."

At Camosun College in Victoria, president Sherri Bell echoes the need for federal help. "A lot of our buildings need a lot of work. They don't reflect the innovative nature that we're talking about," she says.

Colleges and other training institutions are also hoping federal granting bodies will deliver more money to applied research. These institutions are often at the forefront of innovation in Canada, working directly with businesses to solve real-world problems. CICan member schools have partnerships with more than 5,600 businesses across the country.

Despite colleges' provincial mandates, the federal government is their biggest source of research funding, according to CICan. They received $85-million in federal funding in 2013-14, compared with $78-million from the private sector.

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The schools hope the new government will increase funding to a variety of pools they have access to, including the College and Community Innovation Program, which supports work with both universities and industry. They also hope for more social innovation funding, and a new Health Innovation Research Fund to examine new patient-oriented technologies in the health care sector.

"Often, when people think research, they think university, when in fact, we're about research," Ms. Amyot says. "The difference is, we're about applied research."

Giving students the chance to be innovative, through more funding for research and co-op programs, will help prepare them for the work force, Ms. Bell says. "They gain employable experience, and can network across their field."

Administrators also hope the new government will act swiftly to improve indigenous access to postsecondary education. With so many employment connections, colleges have the potential to boost the skills and employability of indigenous people, narrowing education gaps, as recommended in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's calls to action. So far, the Liberals have already promised $50-million to expand the Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training Strategy.

At Nova Scotia Community College, access to education is on administrators' minds. The province faces dire demographic trends as young people flock west in search of better economic opportunities. Now more than ever, NSCC needs to equip underrepresented groups, including indigenous people, with the skills to compete locally, says vice-president, academic, Rosalind Penfound.

As Irving Shipbuilding Inc. prepares to undertake a large contract in Halifax, the school has launched an Irving-sponsored Centre of Excellence that encourages First Nations, women, Nova Scotians with African heritage, disabled people and other underrepresented groups to train for shipbuilding jobs. The federal government supports the centre, and Ms. Penfound hopes that support will be extended.

"We need every person in the working-age population able to work," she says.

That also means the school will need renewed federal support for adult learning programs, to give people second chances to boost their education, Ms. Penfound says. "Those are the ones where we think we can really make significant gains in what we can do to affect the economy."

Read the full Report on Colleges here.

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About the Author

Josh O’Kane is a reporter with The Globe and Mail's Report on Business. Since joining the paper in 2011, he has told stories from New Brunswick to Nairobi. More

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