Faculties of applied science lobby government for money to assist plans for massive growth

Faculties of applied science at post-secondary institutions across BC are beginning to lobby the provincial government for $58 million over the next three years.

During a Board of Governors (BoG) meeting last month, Marc Parlange, the dean of the Faculty of Applied Science at UBC, gave a presentation explaining the growing demand for engineering graduates throughout the province. UBC as well as UBCO, the University of Victoria (UVic), Simon Fraser University (SFU), Thompson Rivers University (TRU) and the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) are all looking to double their intake of undergraduate and graduate applied science students to meet this increasing demand.

In a presentation to the BoG, Parlange emphasized the need for UBC and other schools across the province to consider the long-term effects of the demand and how they will plan to meet it. Under the currently considered initiative, the current 8,500 seats available will rise to a possible height of 17,000 seats.

“We are looking at re-imagining engineering,” said Parlange. “We are not just thinking that we would double [enrolment of] existing programs. We are not just going to double mining or double geological engineering, but we are going to open new lines of engineering as well.”

This type of comprehensive re-imagining of engineering education will hopefully happen at institutions across BC. For UBC specifically, Parlange spoke of new specializations, joint programs among other opportunities that they hope will allow UBC students to get an engineering education that can be considered the best in the world. Some of the faculty of applied science's plans include creating programs in biomedical engineering, computer software engineering, computational engineering and others, as well as partnering with organization across UBC’s campus to allow students to turn academic projects into actual businesses, such as e@ubc.

“One of the things key to the direction of engineering education is [to try] — in society at large — to try and diversify the economy,” said Parlange. “Vancouver and British Columbia have a huge entrepreneurial ambition that has gone largely untapped up till now.”

Parlange explained that there has been a shift in the Lower Mainland towards the knowledge economy in recent years. By increasing the amount of highly trained engineering graduates in the job market, and also by diversifying the specialisms and specific skill sets these graduate will have, the knowledge economy could grow exponentially.  

There are three societal demands that applied science faculties will be focusing on in their initiative. The first is that there are extremely high numbers of vacant positions in the tech sector in the lower mainland for engineers, and an insufficient amount of graduates to fill these vacant positions.

In an open letter to Premier Christy Clark, leaders in the technology industry in the lower mainland wrote, “tech is already outpacing nearly every other sector in terms of growth, and the launch of the BC Tech Fund promises to supercharge that trend. But realizing this promise and making good on your $100-million investment requires overcoming one important hurdle: talent. Skilled graduates fuel the BC tech industry, yet we’re facing a significant shortage. This year alone, BC’s tech companies will be seeking thousands of new employees.”

Jeanie Malone, president of the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS), noted that students in BC have experienced the high demand for graduates, especially in fields such as software and biomedical engineering.

James Olson, dean of research and industrial partnerships for the faculty of applied science, explained that this growing demand for highly trained professional engineers poses a larger issue when considering the amount of foreign workers, or in-migrants, that are expected to fill the vacant positions in the BC tech industry job market. 

“Graduating students will [fill] 50 per cent of the demand, and in-migration will account for the other 50 per cent. The problem with that is … we actually don’t control in-migration. It’s not a provincial initiative,” said Olson.

This presents an issue because we are unable to accurately project how many foreign workers will enter the tech sector in BC, and fill vacant positions. Projections that are done often leave large gaps between actual and projected levels of employment — leaving thousands of positions vacant. The province cannot expect to fill these vacant positions with in-coming migrant workers, and instead need to educate people in BC and fill those positions with their own graduates. This is the only way that employment projections will be accurate, and the provincial need for engineers will be dampened.

The second societal demand is that there has been a growing demand for individual seats in BC applied science programs.

“If you look at the universities — UVic, SFU, UNBC, TRU, UBC Vancouver and UBC Okanagan — we have unfortunately many more applicants, highly qualified applicants, than we have seats available for students,” said Parlange. “So, in some sense we lose students to other provinces who choose to study engineering, who go to Queens, or McGill or Toronto because they can’t get into UBC and study engineering.”

This growing competitiveness in BC has caused applied science programs within the province to become the most competitive engineering programs to gain entrance to in Canada. This competitiveness is stopping the growth of the knowledge economy within BC and is making it more difficult for tech companies to move their people into the Lower Mainland.

“Getting into UBC is a competitive school to begin with. Though I think engineering certainly has one of those exceptional averages where you have to have extremely good grades,” said Malone.  

Olson explained that UBC engineering at the undergraduate level has a fairly comprehensive application structure. As the faculty became more aware of the issues surrounding the demand for seats they introduced the personal profile — a written component of the application to further understand the character of each individual applicant — and a more comprehensive look at high school courses taken by applicants, and their performance in these classes. These admission standards will continue as engineering grows through this initiative, even if the average percentage for admission is lowered through an increase of seats available.

"If [people] want to study engineering, we want them to have the opportunity to study engineering."

— Marc Parlange

The third societal demand is a demand for diversity in the work force. UBC has already made a commitment to becoming 50 per cent female and 50 per cent male by 2020. This commitment, paired with the initiative to double the size of engineering across BC, could greatly influence the way that the engineering profession will change over the next twenty years in the Lower Mainland, and across BC. 

“We want all of society in a sense — if they want to study engineering, we want them to have the opportunity to study engineering,” said Parlange.

By increasing the number of seats available to students in all academic programs — bachelor's, master's and PhD — there is an opportunity for universities across the province to not only educate up to 17,000 students solely in applied science programs, but also grow the economy within BC and change the way the industry is currently operating. Without all three of these components working together, there is no possible way that a knowledge economy could be developed fully in BC.

Students in UBC’s faculty of Applied Science are prepared for an influx of seats over the next three years, and are excited about the chance to diversify their skill sets and work with a greater diversity of students. 

However, there are concerns regarding how prepared the faculties are for such an influx. 

“It really is just the matter of making sure the infrastructure is in place before you grow," said Malone. "It is a matter of making sure there are enough faculty members and that there is enough building space. From what I’ve seen so far … it seems that the deans are trying to get those pieces in place before they grow." 

Parlange explained that with any organizational change come complications. In the meantime, the faculties are attempting to stay as transparent as possible with student organizations such as the EUS to show that they are open to, and are encouraging of, consultation with the community. Parlange asserts that above all, this initiative is meant to help UBC provide students with the best education possible. 

“This initiative is for our students.”