When it comes to student recruitment, competition between universities can be fierce. But Canada’s top engineering schools are bucking that mindset by working with, rather than against, each other to promote their graduate programs.
The engineering faculties at the University of Waterloo, University of Toronto, University of Alberta, University of British Columbia and McGill University have joined forces to form the Canadian Graduate Engineering Consortium. Launched last fall, the initiative has featured academic fairs at each institution for the various schools to showcase their graduate programs to current and recently graduated engineering students. These included panel discussions on the career benefits of advanced engineering education led by engineers with graduate degrees.
“One question that’s come up is, why would competing engineering schools partner with each other? The schools were all aware of the apparent conflict,” says Bruce Hellinga, associate dean of graduate studies and international agreements for Waterloo’s engineering faculty, which initiated the consortium. “We compete for students with all our peer institutions … but we recognize that we can work together to get this common message out about the need for graduate studies.”
That message is being driven by the institutions’ challenges in achieving full enrolment in their master and PhD programs. Dr. Hellinga says that engineers can usually get good jobs soon after graduating from an undergraduate program and so don’t see the point of continuing their studies. The consortium is emphasizing the greater professional and financial rewards for highly educated engineers in research and development, and the growing demand among employers for such professionals.
Steven Dew, associate dean of research and planning at U of A’s engineering faculty, says another factor affecting recruitment into graduate programs is that these programs are still mainly viewed as a route to a career in academia – a myth that he says the consortium is trying to debunk. There is also a financial sacrifice connected with graduate studies, he acknowledges, with students settling for years of annual cost-of-living stipends instead of professional-level income. But, he says, graduate education is about “short-term pain but long-term gain.”
Such arguments are bolstered by an October 2012 report by Engineers Canada called The Engineering Labour Market in Canada: Projections to 2020 (PDF). It says engineering-intensive projects in mining, oil and gas, transportation and utilities will create 16,000 engineering jobs nationwide from 2011 to 2020, but at the same time, 95,000 Canadian engineers will retire by the decade’s end. As well, it says employers will have difficulties recruiting engineers with five to 10 years of experience or specialized skills.
“What we hear from industry is they are absolutely desperate for talented people at all levels of education in the engineering sector, including those with advanced expertise,” Dr. Dew says.
For the consortium, it’s especially important to promote the advantages of pursuing master`s and PhD programs to domestic students. At some engineering schools in Canada, close to 50 percent of those enrolled in graduate programs are international students.
“We are looking to entice more Canadian undergraduate students to think about doing master’s and PhDs … because they have specialized skills that can be of benefit to this country’s economic growth,” says Markus Bussman, vice-dean of graduate studies at U of T’s engineering faculty.
While the consortium may help individual engineering schools to raise their profile among students and graduates of competing institutions, it remains to be seen whether this will translate into higher numbers of domestic graduate students. The faculties plan to track how many 2014-15 graduate program enrolments come from event participants.
“This may turn out to be a zero-sum game,” says Dr. Bussman. “But even if a few U of T students go elsewhere, and others come here, it’s a good thing, because there’s value in having students broaden their perspective and experience new challenges at a different institution.”