The Evolving Role of Polytechnic Institutions: Uniting Agility and Quality

Polytech institutions may have been left in the shadows but with the increasing need of non-degree education, their role is rapidly evolving. Communities are looking to these schools to help get them back into the workforce and fill the talent pipeline. In this interview, Sarah Watts-Rynard discusses how the role of polytech institutions has change, the movement of microcredentials and how polytechs can be valuable to their community and non-degree education space.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How has the role of polytech institutions in the Canadian postsecondary environment evolved since the start of the pandemic?

Sarah Watts-Rynard (SWR): Polytechnics are an integrated part of the post-secondary system in Canada. They’ve seen a lot of the same challenges as the broader college sector, but they’ve responded in some unique ways. One was really around community involvement. Polytechnics became community hubs —testing centers, sharing personal protective equipment and ventilators with local health authorities and providing space for vaccine administration. So, that was really cool to see.

Meanwhile, institutional applied research capability turned its attention to the COVID-19 response. While you saw many universities and medical centers turning to vaccine development, the polytechnics were looking at therapies and expediting the movement of graduates into the workforce.  We also saw huge opportunity to support businesses. Applied research offices began to rethink processes to support the business community and its recovery, enable operations and adopt the necessary tools and technology to continue operations.

Finally, there was a lot of movement to develop microcredentials. We saw the British Columbia Institute of Technology, for example, put together some short courses for nurses specific to pandemic response. At Red River College Polytechnic in Winnipeg, they led the country when it came to microcredentials related to administering vaccines. 

Evo: Why are polytechs so active in driving the microcredentialing movement forward in Canada? 

SWR: A couple of years ago, we started talking about upskilling and reskilling in the context of giving individuals the opportunity to keep up in a changing labor market.  Polytechnics were heavily involved in responsive adult learning even then.

Polytechnics make it possible to come in and take one course, one program to reskill for a new career, upskill within a current one, adapt to new technology or learn a new coding language.

Our research found almost 17,000 of these short courses across our membership, the thirteen Canadian polytechnics. Microcredentials are the logical extension of this commitment to upskilling and reskilling.

Because polytechnics had already been thinking about upskilling the current workforce, when it became a government priority during the pandemic, it wasn’t hard to build on those strengths.

Evo: As universities and more traditional colleges start taking an active role in defining the bounds of a microcredential, where do polytechnics sit in terms of ensuring they’re still able to offer valuable programming to their stakeholders and ideally make funding available for learners to subsidize that education?

SWR: It’s a question of where the line is between something regulated and something flexible.  I see our members across the country actively involved in establishing the definition of a microcredential and its purpose. While microcredentials stand to help people get back to work, , they are just as valuable for students in terms of recognizing a discrete skill within the context of a larger credential.

Those industry-relevant credentials become signals in the job market that a student has done something extra, earned a specific skill. 

I’ve seen our members embed discrete skills within a larger program, making those skills easier for students and employers to identify and articulate. The microcredential is really an opportunity to define a skill, where you got it, when you got it and how it was evaluated. This has tremendous benefits for traditional students and adult learners. 

The challenge is balancing flexibility with academic rigor. We want microcredentials to be high-quality and industry recognized, but also responsive and agile.  

Evo: What are some steps or activities that leaders of polytechnic institutions can do to ensure their impact on the local and the value of non-degree credential education in general is more broadly understood?

SWR: It’s something we have to continue to talk about. Until polytechnic education is well-understood as a post-secondary option in Canada, we can’t expect people to say, “Oh yeah, I know exactly what that is.”

Each province is beginning to understand the polytechnic model and its benefits at their own pace. When the Saskatchewan Institute for Applied Science and Technology changed its name to Saskatchewan Polytechnic and Red River College transitioned its branding to Red River College Polytechnic, that transition was occurring. Ontario has yet to recognize polytechnics as distinct. But I think that each institution has to be able to point to the value of a hands-on, applied education that is responsive, first and foremost, to the needs of employers. To me, that is what a polytechnic education is.  

For potential students and their parents, the message has to be, “We’re going to give you a high-quality technical education and real opportunities to apply it. We’re not just going to teach you how to build a house, we’re going to let you build it, teach you all components and connect you with employers who need those skills.” 

Evo: How can we create more collaborative opportunities for program partnerships and comprehensive learner experiences, tying together the various institutions that exist within what could be a cohesive post-secondary ecosystem?

SWR: I see that happening already, but there’s absolutely room to improve. Each of my members has strong relationships with the universities in their region. The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and the University of Calgary often work in partnership. You see the same kind of thing with Algonquin College and Carleton or Ottawa U. The relationships are there to support student mobility, but there’s definitely room for improvement. Equally, some of my member institutions are partnering with smaller regional colleges, bringing the benefits of the size and scope of their operations, including program development, faculty experience, and resources, to smaller institutions. 

I would like to see much better articulation of credits and skill recognition. As a country, we are still not great at that.  We need to find ways to encourage university students who feel like they made a mistake to transition to something more hands-on, more applied and vice versa. Until we do that, we’re never going to address our labor needs in Canada. We’re not giving people what they deserve.

Evo: As you look to the next five years, what are some of the trends that polytech leaders need to be on top of because they’re going to change the way we work?

SWR: We need to stay on top of how the workplace is changing. We can’t yet know the impact of remote work in certain sectors and for certain workers. We need to understand the new skills and new opportunities related to remote work, then ensure new entrants are well-prepared for success.

I’m feeling really positive about the fantastic learning hybrids that have emerged over the last year and a half.  It not only shows an ability to adapt to current circumstances, but makes me certain that we’re ready for whatever comes next. What’s the change needed in the workforce? What are the new skills needed? How do you communicate? How do you work in teams in that environment?  Polytechnics are figuring it out, alongside their students and business partners, which is amazing to see.

When it comes to mid-career workers, we need to improve recognition of the skills that people have learned along the way. It’s not always a credential earned in a formal learning environment. I think polytechnics are actually very, very good when it comes to prior learning assessment, validating the skills people pick up at work and giving credit for it.

Building education to respond to workforce needs means recognizing the skills people already have, identifying the gaps they need to fill and directing them to just-in-time training. It’s less one size fits all and more tailored to each person individually. 

About the Author

Sarah Watts-Rynard, Chief Executive Officer, Polytechnics Canada

Sarah Watts-Rynard joined Polytechnics Canada as Chief Executive Officer in July 2018. Her background is in marketing communications, advocacy and non-profit management, including eight years focused on the important role tradespeople play in the Canadian economy. Sarah is Vice-Chair of the Canadian Centre for Women in Science, Engineering, Trades and Technology (WinSETT Centre) and sits on the Boards of the CWB Welding Foundation and the Canadian Club of Ottawa.