Address to convocation by Dr. Vince Withers

(June 4, 1998, Gazette)

I am very thankful for the great honor you have bestowed on me today, and on behalf of my family and myself, I would like to express our sincere appreciation.

If I may speak personally, I regard this as a very special honor because of my own life experiences. When I was a young man, a university education was a very remote goal, not an expected part of our daily experience. A university or college education was something that was very nice to have, a bonus really, we didn't demand it of ourselves, nor did others demand it of us.

My, how the world has changed!

It was only later in life, as I moved through the business world, that I began to understand and appreciate the importance of a good postsecondary education.

In our world today, I think the necessity of an education is best expressed in the thoughts of H. G. Wells, who wrote: "Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe."

I believe education is just that important to our society. I know that many of you here are familiar with my views on reducing or eliminating the very high cost of education for students.

In raising my concerns on this issue, my desire is to support, in this order: firstly, our young people, who are our future; secondly, our education system, and its needed transformation; and, thirdly, our province and our future success, which demands that we be prepared to take bold steps now, so that we can assure our future growth and development.

As someone involved in the postsecondary education system for the past 12 years, I want to say early that Memorial University and College of the North Atlantic have a reputation for doing a good job for this province. Despite limited and sometimes scarce resources, our institutions are recognized worldwide for producing quality students and, as we all know, our graduates hold important positions in all parts of the country.

Achieving a good postsecondary education is much more than just being able to hang a diploma or certificate on the wall. Education is a path to self-reliance, improved self-esteem and more importantly, allows each one of us to develop our intellectual capacity to its fullest potential. Then, I ask, why is it so difficult for most, and impossible for some, to receive a good postsecondary education without having to pay a significant price in terms of student debt and, in many cases, longer term economic hardship. Is there anything more devastating than a wasted mind and not having an opportunity to develop your full intellectual potential?

Today our students are faced with insurmountable economic roadblocks to open and freer access to our postsecondary institutions. This is particularly critical at a time when the "benchmark for success" in the workplace is a minimum two years of postsecondary education.

After 40 years in the workforce and involvement in most aspects of community life, I have concluded that our only hope for long term economic success lies in the development of a strong education culture, it's time for an education age.

The core issue confronting our society in Newfoundland and Labrador is managing for the future. As we near the close of the 20th century, our way of life is experiencing some profound changes that are altering the character of our province, thus creating new challenges and new opportunities.

Perhaps the most significant and meaningful change is the end to the historic isolation of our rural communities. Ten years ago, our businesses operated largely within the local marketplace, and the approaches, practices, and business methods we used were appropriate to that environment.

Now, through the great advances in technology and communications, this province is becoming "distance independent" and increasingly our people and businesses are creating real success stories as we open new international markets.

Achieving success in a global economy requires that we make some significant changes. These areas of change include: education, our image, economic development, technology leadership, and resource ownership. These areas of change are directly interconnected in that they all touch on how we see ourselves today and how we are preparing ourselves for the future.

Philosopher Eric Hoffer said that "In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future." I believe this prediction also applies to the futures of organizations - and to the prosperity of nations.

I believe we need to make radical changes - changes in how we act towards each other, changes in how we present ourselves, especially to the outside world, and changes in how we do business.

This change is particularly important as our province moves into a new era of growth and development.

For example, it is becoming increasingly clear that the offshore oil and gas industry is going to be much larger than earlier projections. As a result of these developments, we see educated Newfoundlanders rightly taking their place in this new industry both here at home and globally.

In the information technology sector, we are demonstrating every day that Newfoundlanders can work with the best. I was really delighted to see the item on CBC-TV recently featured a group of young Newfoundlanders working in Chicago in the IT sector. When the American recruiter was asked her opinion, her response was "They are very professional."

What a great description for these young, educated Newfoundlanders.

They are really ambassadors for our province. I was asked recently why should government pay the full cost of postsecondary education when our young people are going to leave the province. Those young people working in Chicago are the answer to that question and I'm disappointed that we have such a narrow-minded view of education.

How has the business world changed? In a word, dramatically. It's been marked by a far-reaching transformation of business life. At the core of this transformation is the new education standard required for employees to function.

Knowledge workers have become the norm. To be honest with you, I'm not sure if I like the term "knowledge workers," but it does reflect the idea that employees today are working more with information than with raw materials. Thomas Edison wrote a century ago: "We don't know half of one millionth of one per cent about anything." There's a lot more information around today that there was in Edison's time. That's why we need to draw from the knowledge of others.

Industrial age activities have been replaced by information age activities. The emphasis on financial capital has been replaced by an emphasis on intellectual capital.

Knowledge workers are distinctly different from industrial workers. They are more independent, more mobile and more intolerant of process. They're motivated by the innate challenges of a job.

Most importantly, knowledge workers are keenly aware of the value of the knowledge they've accumulated. And they're determined to continuously enhance that store of knowledge.

In this new economy, innovation is key - innovation that not only drives costs down, but innovation that opens up new possibilities - possibilities for new ways to deliver access to education and health care, to deliver government services, and for the private sector to create better services and improved ways of doing business.

As a recent report to Industry Canada states, "It will become increasingly obvious that the real competition in the global free market economy will be the competition to innovate." This is particularly important for us to understand as there are now over 1,000 companies in Newfoundland either exporting or doing business in other parts of the world.

How do companies and people innovate? Peter Drucker, the prophet of the knowledge-based economy, suggests that there is only one way to sustain continuous innovation and that is by acquiring new knowledge, both scientific and non-scientific. This can only be achieved by committing ourselves to a strong education-based culture.

In the Canadian context, Newfoundlanders have achieved a fair share of success in business, education, the arts and entertainment.

There are plenty of success stories in this province, so why aren't we viewed as being a more upbeat and progressive people?

Our people continue to suffer from the effects of some longstanding social issues, such as unemployment, illiteracy, including a poor image of our province and our people, especially on the national and international scene.

It also needs to be said that we have not as yet as a people been able to break the cycle of dependency that has characterized our way of life for generations.

So, how do we change this pattern? Our value system should drive our actions.

The most important place to start is with our value system. Governments and leaders in society would be well served in their efforts to improve society if they would first seek to identify the principles involved and then be guided by them.

Postsecondary education is one of our most important values. Society demands of our young people that they attain the highest level of education possible.

Our society has mandated postsecondary education as the universal education standard. That is the core value and there is no debate in society on this standard.

Then we have to ask ourselves why our actions have not kept pace with our value system.

The issue before us today is that we must act now to deliver on improved access to postsecondary education. This is more than a social responsibility. This is an essential investment in our people. This is a fundamental investment in our future.

Isn't it much more productive and beneficial to support our young people on the front end of the education system than to support them when they become trapped in a socially dependant way of life.

My experiences during a series of trade missions to Ireland, with which region we share so much in terms of history, culture, and attitudes suggests that such boldness will be essential if we are to successfully free our capacities, take advantage of the new economic opportunities, and assume confident responsibility for our own social and economic well-being.

A vital element of the Irish success story is their Industrial Development Policy, an integrated policy that both reflects and influences elements of social development strategy, such as education. The Irish regard education in technology, engineering and the sciences, as well as in business, marketing and the arts, as the underlying foundation of their economy, and indeed, of their social and economic development planning. Ireland has a tuition-free postsecondary education, and is currently undertaking a major expansion to their education infrastructure.

We have to change the model and image of our society.

I am convinced that if we don't vigorously pursue education excellence as a high priority, we will continue to be a "have not" province for some time.

Let us become known for being the best educated society; let us create a society admired by others for our literacy, our education, our dedication to lifelong learning. This is neither a radical idea nor a complex problem; unfortunately, all too often, the commitment and vision is lacking.

This province needs to highlight and adopt education as its number one priority, and in doing so, recognize education as the common denominator for improving our economic and social development.

It can be said without fear of contradiction, that an educated person can and will be a productive member of our society.

I strongly believe that unless we recognize and accept this fundamental principle, many of our people will continue to rely on government and its social program.

At times, it appears our social problems are deep-rooted and are virtually impossible to solve. I strongly believe improved access to postsecondary education is the solution. It won't solve all of our problems but it will vastly improve our chances of success.

Our common goal as citizens, taxpayers, communities, businesses, and governments, is to create a society which is moving forward confidently into the future, playing its full role in a global economy.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have the potential for success right here in this province. We are beginning to see that we possess the human and technological capabilities to compete in the global marketplace, especially in areas of high technology and the information economy.

Reducing the financial burden and improving access to postsecondary education is an issue not only for our time today but also for our future tomorrows.

The long term success of our province rests in the hands of our people. Given a decent chance to participate in the postsecondary education system, they can and will respond and assume their rightful place as net contributors to our province.

I am encouraged by the current economic strategy of our province, however, I want to appeal to each of you here to think about these matters and I encourage you to place postsecondary education high on your priority list when you are speaking with our community leaders.

These attempts to raise the level of awareness on the importance of education have led to much public debate and reaction by all sectors of our community. I think its time now for all of us to cast aside our traditional views on postsecondary education and strive for a breakthrough.

Our students need to see this type of leadership in action. I have initiated this debate on tuition fees because I sincerely believe that if we elevate postsecondary education to the top of the priority list, our longer term economic and social objectives will be assured.

I should add here that some progress is being achieved, the recent scholarship announcements both federally and provincially are welcome news; however, I hesitate to say that it falls well short of what's needed if we are to commit ourselves to the start of an education age.

I would define real progress to include the following: Firstly, no tuition fees or, as a minimum, a moratorium on fees for five years. We must resist with all of our strength what appears to be a move to cost recovery education. Secondly, we must see the establishment of a modern incentive-driven mandatory minimum education level of Grade 12 plus two years of postsecondary education. Remember there are approximately 2,500 young people leaving school each year with Grade 12 education or less, truly they will be the next generation of undereducated unless we move quickly to modernize our education system. And thirdly, an extensive review must be undertaken to assess the education needs of the province for the next ten years with a major emphasis on training and education for the new economy.

Our education system will improve; however, it will take the collective leadership and vision of the stakeholders in education if we are to ensure that the next generation is properly educated to meet the challenges of the new millennium.

Let us, as we celebrate our 50th anniversary as a province of Canada, change our course through improved access to postsecondary education.

In conclusion, let me say that Newfoundland and Labrador requires us to develop and maintain our traditional values of generosity, of shared community, and of our unique culture.

But along with those traditional virtues, today's world calls for new qualities: a greater self-confidence, a willingness to change and acquire new strengths, and the determination never to stop learning. It's a tall order. But our people, our communities, our province and our country demand no less.

I know that those of you honored today have shown many of these qualities. I congratulate you on those strengths. And I wish you well as you confront the challenging and exciting world of opportunity in the years to come.