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education lab

Last month, I sat in a meeting, organized by the Conference Board of Canada, in which academic leaders listened to what people who hire university graduates often find missing in the candidates they interview. From IBM to city managers, and from pipeline companies to NGOs, the refrain was the same: They wanted (and were not finding) people who can communicate effectively and persuasively, people who can collaborate across departments to solve problems, people with emotional intelligence who can transcend age and cultural differences and who possess the resilience to embrace failure as a learning experience.

They weren't asking for people who code more lines per hour, or those more facile with spreadsheets, or any other so-called "job-ready" skills. They wanted employees prepared for the 21st century knowledge economy in which communication, collaboration, and creativity are the most valuable commodities – precisely those skills a liberal arts education provides.

What do Pulitzer Prize winners, the wealthiest Fortune 500 CEOs, and PhDs elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences have in common? They attended liberal arts programs. Graduates of these programs are over-represented by 300 per cent to 800 per cent among those at the pinnacle of their respective fields.

So what are we doing in North America? Closing, transmuting, and even denigrating liberal arts education. Twenty-five years ago, David Brenaman drew attention to the declining number of liberal arts institutions in the U.S. In 2012, another look at that study found the number of genuine liberal arts colleges had declined further from 212 to 130. The State of Florida has gone so far as to "Implement a differentiated [tuition] structure to support high-skill, high-demand degree programs, as identified by the Legislature," which means if you major in philosophy or literature, you pay more tuition than if you major in engineering.

In Canada, we see pundits and politicians falling over themselves to blame universities for high unemployment, the putative "skills gap" and every other sign of economic malaise. B.C.s Premier Christie Clark has launched a "skills to jobs" plan designed to "use the government's budget to produce an education system responsive to employers needs."

Which employers exactly? Not the broad spectrum of private and public sector employers I heard in Calgary. A few months ago, I encountered the B.C. Jobs Minister at a meet-and-greet event. Introduced as the President of Quest University Canada, I was pleased she had heard of my institution. Her response to my brief description of our unique liberal arts and sciences educational program, however, made clear what this "Liberal" government thinks of liberal education: "But I need 10,000 pipe fitters in the next decade and you aren't going to supply any of them." My response – "No, but perhaps one of our graduates will show you how you only need 5000" – went unacknowledged. The government's priorities are clear: "the B.C. government is responding to concerns from potential investors that the province will not be able to provide a skilled workforce to build proposed multibillion-dollar facilities in a liquified natural gas industry." The result of these "concerns"? B.C.'s public universities face declining budgets for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, what's happening in the rest of the world? Rigid, 19th century postsecondary landscapes are being challenged by new liberal arts institutions. In Hong Kong, Morningside College has emerged inside the Chinese University of Hong Kong as a residential liberal arts college consisting of "a community of people learning together." In India, the Foundation for Liberal And Management Education (FLAME) has been founded explicitly so as to "not conform to the norms and rote learning … prevalent in India." In Singapore, a city-state to which the word "liberal" is rarely applied, Yale University has partnered with the National University of Singapore to create Yale-NUS which opened last September on the classic liberal arts and sciences model. And the Aga Khan Development Network is planning four liberal arts institutions in Arusha, Tanzania and the Central Asian republics, formed to educate leaders for these emerging economies.

This year, Canada and the U.S. will produce 25 per cent of the world's GDP with only 5 per cent of its population. Canada is first in the OECD in postsecondary participation rate, but near the bottom in employer investment in worker training. The assumption that universities should provide these services is deeply misguided. If we turn our universities into job-training centres, while the rest of the world is opening the minds of their best students and cultivating their creativity with a liberal arts and sciences education, our ratio of GDP to population is headed for a steep decline.

David Helfand is president and vice-chancellor of Quest University Canada.