Her mom wanted her to go into science and become a pharmacist. But after test-driving a number of subjects at Brandon University, Carissa Taylor chose English, with minors in philosophy and theatre. “For me, it’s more important to be happy than financially secure,” the 21-year-old says. And university, she argues, should not be seen solely as a factory churning out workers. “I always thought of it as knowledge for the sake of knowledge.” But she concedes, “It’s a little scary that there is really no safe profession to go into.”
That frightening reality already has come home to Paul Bradley. With three degrees, at 28, he is working in a Toronto gym, answering the phone and folding towels. But he’s also taking online courses at Queen’s University to get some additional credentials in religion and French, in hopes of eventually landing a teaching job. Even with a master’s in history and another in education, he can’t get on a supply list. Hanging over him is nearly $20,000 in debt. And to think, he says, he once looked down on high-school friends for heading west after Grade 12 to land jobs in the oil industry.
“I thought they didn’t understand the importance of university. Now, I see them beginning a phase of life I wanted to have right now,” he says. “The irony is that there are high-school students doing my same job [at the gym], and I’m qualified to be a high-school teacher. But I have to swallow my pride and let it go.”
Encouraged all their lives by politicians, parents and guidance counsellors to go to university, many students are waking up to the fact that their costly years on campus may not open the right doors later.
Canada boasts, deservedly, of creating one of the most educated populations in the world with 56 per cent of people 25 to 34 years old having a postsecondary credential. But as the number of full- and part-time university students now surpasses 1.2 million – with 700,000 more enrolled in community colleges – there is a widespread sense that the country is no longer preparing students with the background, skills and flexibility to become leaders in the global knowledge economy. Being the most educated, it turns out, may not be the same as being the best educated.
This week, six of the country’s eight top-ranked universities slipped notably in the standings of the influential Times Higher Education World University Rankings, which prompted several university presidents to argue for a renewed push to develop a more concentrated group of elite Canadian institutions. The idea that Canadian universities can no longer be all things to all students has become a recognized thesis both inside the ivory towers and beyond – that they need to be less bound to lecture halls, more innovative with curriculum and more accountable in the quality of their graduates.
It’s not just our postsecondary system at stake. The future of the country will be guided by the debate that is now unfolding, as we radically rethink how we shape the coming generations and enhance Canada’s cultural and political life, its scientific frontiers and its ability to compete in a rapidly changing world.
Students, stuffed into lecture halls, complain about not being challenged, not acquiring job skills or not having enough contact with their professors in the early years of their degrees. Faculty members grumble that students arrive from high school unprepared, or prefer to amble leisurely through a four-year degree like consumers ordering an education to go. But professors are often overly focused on research at the expense of teaching and resist new technology.
Employers say many of their newly graduated hires do not arrive with critical skills. In a 2011 survey of 1,000 employers in the United States, 39 per cent said higher education was doing an “only fair” or “poor” job of preparing students for the workplace. In particular, the employers said graduates underperformed in problem-solving and written skills, and abilities such as social intelligence and adaptive thinking. On anecdotal evidence, the problem is at least as bad in Canada.
And that is when jobs materialize at all. As James Côté, co-author of Lowering Higher Education, points out, the government’s postsecondary cheerleading solved the supply problem of youth labour by parking them on campus. But it failed to plan for how graduates would find work related to their field of study. Canada has one of the highest graduate underemployment rates among Western countries, swelling the ranks of Keats-quoting baristas.