When Guillermo Acosta looks out the window at Humber College’s Faculty of Media & Creative Arts he sees a fleet of construction cranes, but also something else — the future of how education, industry and the arts will work together.
“It’s the largest project we’ve ever undertaken,” says Mr. Acosta, the faculty’s dean, who oversees 48 different programs at the Toronto-based college, which offers a polytechnic model of education.
With the first phase to open in 2023 and completion scheduled for 2025, the 360,000 square foot Humber Cultural Hub at the college’s Lakeshore campus in Etobicoke, Ont. will be more advanced than any facility of its kind in Canada, Mr. Acosta says.
The project, costing more than $200-million, will include two state-of-the art performance spaces, three film studios, post-production suites, a screening room, a new recording studio and e-sports facilities.
“We’re plugging our students into experiences that have direct connections with creative industries and connecting to the community too with our performance spaces,” he says. “I may be biased, but to me the type of education that colleges and polytechnics provide is second to none.”
Working closely with industry is a key feature of polytechnic education at schools across Canada. According to Polytechnics Canada, the umbrella group for 13 publicly funded schools across the country, in 2019-20 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), Canadian polytechnics conducted 3,350 applied research projects to serve the needs of 2,375 industry partners.
In the same year, 21,100 students contributed to industry applied research, helping develop 2,825 prototypes for different sectors.
“The benefit of a polytechnic university is the emphasis on applied learning,” says Stephanie Howes, dean of the Melville School of Business at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) in Vancouver.
“Students have the opportunity to put their learning into real life or simulated action in the moment they are gaining the knowledge,” she says.
“There’s a much broader range of collaboration between polytechnics and industry than a typical university would have,” says John Tibbits, president and chief executive officer of Conestoga College in Ontario’s Waterloo Region.
“Our mission is applied learning with a focus on employer needs, not just for current students but also for existing workers. In many sectors, such as the automotive industry, the technology is constantly changing,” Dr. Tibbits says.
Collaboration between polytechnics and industry is baked into the structure of the schools and programs, Humber’s Mr. Acosta explains.
“Every one of our programs has an advisory committee with between eight and 10 members from both industry and the college. An associate dean chairs the committee; each group finds out what industries need in terms of skills and knowledge, and we put this into our curriculum,” he says.
The size of program advisory committees varies at different schools, but the principle is the same, Dr. Tibbits says. “It’s not just the faculty that sets the curriculum. We draw in employers and ultimately the curriculum is the whole college’s responsibility,” he explains.
“We do this not simply because we think we ought to do this. It’s part of our mission and our goal that our job is to ensure that our polytechnic contributes to the economic development of our region. Our job placement rate is at 87 per cent of students finding work within six months of graduation,” Dr. Tibbits adds.
Collaboration with industry shows up in all kinds of ways. Conestoga College works closely with the auto industry, for example, and at KPU, the fashion design program is geared to the practical application of what’s happening in stores, boutiques and design houses.
“Even in the entry level, our fashion graduates can talk about design in industry terms, understand the market and know how to work in teams,” says Alan Davis, vice-president and chancellor of KPU.
He agrees with Humber’s Mr. Acosta that one of the fastest-growing areas for collaboration is in digital arts, where the technology is changing constantly and becoming more advanced more rapidly than in other fields.
Mr. Acosta points to a joint program that Humber’s Centre for Creative Business Innovation ran with Toronto’s prestigious Aga Khan Museum that deployed technology to present a music performance and a documentary and enabled participants in India, Iran, Ontario and British Columbia to collaborate.
“It’s the kind of work that will be enhanced when the Humber Cultural Hub opens,” he says.
“We identify industries where there’s a lot of flux and growth and align,” Mr. Davis says. “Another example is the organic farming movement. Now it’s in every supermarket and there are a lot of small growers who want to get into this; our sustainable agriculture people are working with them.”
Humber also does “a lot of work connecting industry with students who are new immigrants or who are internationally trained and need to have their experience and credentials recognized in Canada,” Mr. Acosta adds.
In Ontario, the provincial government recently said it will introduce legislation to lower barriers for internationally trained people to work in trades and some professions.
Helping with these connections is important because polytechnic students are often in transition from other countries, programs or work experience. “Half of our students come straight from high school, but 50 per cent arrive with other post-secondary education or they’re newcomers to Canada who want to get into the job market fast,” Mr. Acosta says.
The pandemic and the economy that’s emerging post-pandemic make industry-polytechnic collaboration more important, the schools say. “On one hand, it helped us administratively – it’s much easier to coordinate the program advisory committee meetings for our 48 programs we have every year because we can get everyone together online,” Mr. Acosta says.
COVID-19 has blurred the boundaries between industry and higher education, KPU’s Mr. Davis adds. For example, the service sector first endured lockdowns and now is challenged to find enough staff.
In an industry where it has faced significant changes and “it has lost employees that don’t come back, it makes sense to partner with the polytechnics to create a funnel for employees who meet their needs,” he says.