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Sheldon Levy leaving Wynne’s government to become CEO of Next Canada

Sheldon Levy, deputy minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development and former president of Ryerson University, is set to become CEO of Next Canada, a non-profit that aims to develop Canada’s next generation of entrepreneurs.

Clifton Li/Ryerson University

Another top Ontario provincial official is leaving Kathleen Wynne's Liberal government in advance of a potentially difficult election for the party, which has been in power for 14 years.

Sheldon Levy, deputy minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development and former president of Ryerson University, is set to become CEO of Next Canada, a non-profit that aims to develop Canada's next generation of entrepreneurs.

Mr. Levy will take up his new job on November 1, one year before his three-year contract with the government is set to expire. His departure follows on the heels of the resignation of Environment Minister Glen Murray in August and announcements by other MPPs, including Speaker Dave Levac, that they won't seek re-election.

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But Mr. Levy said the new job came along at the right time. The Ministry of Higher Education has concluded key funding initiatives and the election is nine months away, giving the government time to replace him before June 7. And the position puts him where he is happiest, helping young people launch their careers.

"I just said, 'What do I enjoy doing the most? What have I been successful in doing and where are my networks that can contribute?' [They were] all in areas where Next wanted my help," Mr. Levy, 67, said. "When you're my age you'd better want to make things better, to make a difference."

The move returns him to one of the key legacies of his time at Ryerson, the creation of the Digital Media Zone, a globally ranked centre for entrepreneurship that has been the launching ground for 308 startups. Some of those who came through the DMZ had participated in the Next 36 program for young entrepreneurs, an early iteration of Next Canada, which now encompasses entrepreneurial programs for AI firms and high-growth companies.

"I saw they were exceptional people. They made the DMZ stronger," Mr. Levy said.

If he is restless in government, it is not surprising. A postsecondary insider with a reputation for moving faster than most of his peers, Mr. Levy was brought into government partly to find a way to encourage institutions to pay more attention to the quality of education, including student learning and graduation outcomes, sources have said.

That mission has been accomplished, he said.

New funding agreements with postsecondary institutions are weeks away from being publicly released. They are the first step in moving away from public grants based on enrollment. Instead, a per cent of each institution's funding will be based on how they perform in six categories, including student experience, access and equity, research, learning and teaching and community impacts.

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"To me, it's a major breakthrough," Mr. Levy said. "To the average person, they say, 'Are you kidding me, this did not happen before?'"

The new framework is also aimed at ensuring the survival of universities in more remote parts of the province, where they are an economic lifeline for their communities.

"Underneath all of this is a big urban question about the health of rural communities. How do you support the rural communities to attract and keep young people?"

Over the roughly seven months of negotiations, universities and the government began to work together more closely than in the past, said David Lindsay, the president of the Council of Ontario Universities.

"Every government has a strategy on what they want to do for the province, and every university president has a strategy on what they want to accomplish for their institution," Mr. Lindsay said. The new funding agreements "create a framework for that conversation to work together, [from] a more transactional conversation about bums in seats," he said.

Colleges and universities also persuaded the government that they need money to meet the increase in demand for postsecondary spots that is likely to occur as a result of changes to student financial aid. Under the plan, average university or college tuition for students whose parents earn less than $50,000 will be free.

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Statistics collected by the Ontario Student Assistance Program are already suggesting the new system is driving up participation, Mr. Levy said.

With the work done, the time was right to return to working directly with students, Mr. Levy said.

"One of the things that was most enjoyable about being a president was the fun and the joy of watching the students' success directly. And in government, no matter how well you do your job, you are removed from that. So getting back to doing that with people I enjoy working with, it's hugely important to me," he said.

Mr. Levy has high hopes for Next Canada. The non-profit is funded by 40 corporate leaders and its alumni – which include Thalmic Labs' Stephen Lake – have raised hundreds of millions in financing.

Mr. Levy says the future of the organization could include a new building to match what he hopes will be its expanded national ambitions.

"I'm dreaming this place attracts some of the greatest young minds in the world," Mr. Levy said. "How can we take that talent and help them see they can scale beyond the present imagination? If the aspiration is to create companies worth $100-million, why not $1-billion? The idea of thinking bigger and bolder is what I think Canada needs," he said.

As Ontario reports a 19 per cent rise in opioid-related deaths in 2016, the province is announcing a further $222 million to combat the crisis. Health Minister Eric Hoskins calls the funding increase “unprecedented.” The Canadian Press
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