Talent, innovation, and entrepreneurship were the topics at a day long discussion organized by the Atlantic Association of Universities.

The opening speaker was Kevin Lynch, a Cape Breton native and former clerk of the Privy Council. He is also the vice-chair of BMO Financial and the chancellor of the University of King's College in Halifax.

Lynch is concerned that not one university in Atlantic Canada ranks among the world's top 200 and that "complacency" is the biggest risk both to the region and  the country as a whole.

"In a changing world, it's illogical to think the status quo can be a good model for the future," Lynch said.

"I think the three sectors that have been the slowest to embrace innovation are health care, education, and government and of those, education is probably the furthest behind," he said.

Charles Ayles, an assistant deputy minister responsible for population growth and repatriation in New Brunswick, said the new Liberal government wants a tighter focus around universities delivering "job ready" graduates.

"Are we getting our students prepared for the workforce upon graduation," Ayles asked the symposium that attracted  over one hundred business leaders and university presidents and vice presidents.

'When you get out of university you expect to get a job'

"You don't go to university to get a job but your are darn well sure when you get out of university you expect to get a job," Ayles said. "We have to do a better job marrying the two."

The University of Waterloo where Lynch is board chair, has the largest co-op university education program in the world. He suggested that model could be expanded to work here.

"It combines education with getting ready for the workforce because every second term you are out there testing your skills against reality," Lynch said.

"I strongly believe that we should be extending experiential learning. It's in some universities and some faculties here in Atlantic Canada but it's not really as pervasive as it could be," he said.

Dalhousie vice president of research, Martha Crago, echoed that. She said universities in this region are not delivering on their potential because most are too small to attract research dollars that would boost their reputations internationally.

She says universities can change that by choosing to work together, both on research and expanding co-op education.

"We can't each have our own little co-op office, university by university," said Crago, who worked previously at the Universite de Montreal.

"We have to have one big co-op office at least in Nova Scotia that brings all the companies out and gets students in them," she said.

$500,000 offered to universities to pick up challenge

New Brunswick angel investor and IT entrepreneur Gerry Pond also thinks more collaboration among universities is critical if the region is to succeed. He offered $500,000 to universities who would pick up his challenge to start a program, an "international sales academy" in his words, to teach businesses how to sell their goods and services to different cultures around the world.

Paul Davidson of the Association of Universities and Canadian Colleges said even though more Canadians are pursuing post secondary education, we are being "out competed" by other countries when it comes to the percentage of people seeking more schooling.

Canada has dropped from fifth to seventeenth among OECD nations in this area.

When it comes to productivity, Canada is also about seventeenth, with Atlantic Canada lagging at about 50 per cent of the national measure.