The latter half of 2021 is shaping up to be a period of hope: hope the pandemic is waning, hope the economy will rebound quickly, hope that massive public investments will set us up for a stronger, greener future. The role of government is to turn that hope into an ambitious vision, a well-considered plan and the pragmatic steps necessary to achieve it. Ideally, we use the lessons of the last 16 months to develop a forward-looking, sustainable strategy that seeks to build the Canada we want in 2050.
A critical component of that strategy should be investments in education, training and research infrastructure. Dollar for dollar, funding for post-secondary infrastructure offers an outsized impact.
Today’s polytechnics have an important workforce development function, providing credential programs, apprenticeships in the skilled trades and thousands of continuing education courses. Polytechnics are preparing the tradespeople, technicians and project managers who will build, maintain and repair the infrastructure of the future. Infrastructure investments stand to give them the right tools for the job.
In the digital age, new delivery models are both driving and being driven by technological acceleration. Institutions must offer students quality internet connections, devices adequate for their study needs and appropriate spaces to learn. Polytechnics face the additional requirement to invest in the hardware, software and internet connectivity required to deliver applied, industry-aligned education and training. These investments not only support that education, but enable institutions to become “living labs” where new technology can be tested, monitored and improved as part of the delivery of experiential education.
Another important element of post-secondary infrastructure investments is the need for retrofits. Retrofits stand to reduce operating and maintenance costs, reduce the risk of failure of critical infrastructure, improve accessibility, health, safety and security, and generate a better student experience. Upgrades ensure institutions reduce their carbon footprint and energy consumption, water use and greenhouse gas emissions. Considering the broader national requirement to engage industry and community partners in these goals, such investments also model pragmatic ways in which others can retrofit older buildings and systems.
Addressing the impacts of climate change is key to infrastructure spending today. The polytechnic sector can contribute to national net-zero objectives by conducting applied research at places like Northern Alberta Institute of Technology’s Productivity and Innovation Centre and Red River College’s Centre for Applied Research in Sustainable Infrastructure. Facilities like these can help businesses and entrepreneurs, municipalities and non-profit partners build, test and commercialize green technologies, processes and systems. Polytechnic applied research capacity will be important to ensuring the business community can embrace new technology, boost productivity and create jobs.
On sustainability projects – whether on campus or for external partners – polytechnic students aren’t relegated to spectator status. Today’s youth advocate for and participate in net-zero transformations, actively seeking a post-secondary education aligned with their values. This is how green transformations – from new construction techniques to electric vehicle charging infrastructure – have both an immediate impact and develop Canada’s green talent pipeline.
However, the benefits of and necessity for polytechnic infrastructure extends well beyond environmental sustainability and access to technology-based learning. These institutions are also deeply embedded in their communities, serving local learners, collaborating with local businesses and acting as community social hubs.
For example, Algonquin College has partnered with Perley Rideau Centre to develop the Ottawa Campus of Care, which will include 240 new long-term care beds and state-of-the-art, fully integrated academic spaces to support health-related programs.
Humber College is building a 360,000 square foot LEED Platinum cultural hub to house music, arts and multimedia programs. Thirty per cent of the space will be available for youth summer arts academies and for artists, creative industries and community arts organizations to create, teach, perform and exhibit their work.
Saskatchewan Polytechnic has plans for a standalone Indigenous cultural centre on their Prince Albert Campus to enhance the student experience while creating and promoting a safe space for Indigenous and other cultural activities.
These are just a few examples that showcase the impacts of investments in polytechnic infrastructure.
As our government moves forward with a National Infrastructure Assessment, concrete policy steps – such as relaunching a post-secondary infrastructure program and finding ways to better integrate experiential learning for students and apprentices in infrastructure projects – are just a few ways the federal government can build the Canada we want in 2050.