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University of Toronto Professor Brad Inwood is photographed while teaching his Ancient Philosophy Class at the University of Toronto, October 04 2012. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

University of Toronto Professor Brad Inwood is photographed while teaching his Ancient Philosophy Class at the University of Toronto, October 04 2012.

(Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)


Can Canada's schools pass the next great intelligence test? Add to ...

The proportion of young people working non-permanent, low-wage jobs has doubled in the past decade to nearly 12 per cent in 2011. According to labour-force-survey data, last year 32 per cent of Canadians younger than 30 with a postsecondary credential were either in a temporary job, employed part-time or unemployed. About a quarter of graduates say their degrees are “not at all related” to their jobs.

 It’s freshman economics: The more BAs that flood the market, the less valuable they become. A university degree is indisputably better than a Grade 12 diploma, and graduates do get jobs – our youth unemployment rate is still lower than that of the United States or Britain. But the sales pitch that university graduates can expect to earn $1-million more over their lifetimes is misleading: Real salary gains vary widely between fields, schools and graduation years – graduating into a moribund economy, as students have recently, has been shown to affect income for life.

Yes, chemical-engineering students can dream comfortably of dollar signs and job security. But their liberal-arts roommates often dip a toe in the frosty job market and scurry back to grad school, or even to community colleges, to gain more practical skills: According to Colleges Ontario, though they remain a small cohort (about 10,000 students), the number of university graduates applying to colleges has increased by 47 per cent since 2007.

“I just anticipated that what I was learning would be valued by employers down the road, and I don’t think it necessarily is – or at least not the way it used to be,” says Mr. Bradley, the underemployed Toronto teacher. “Now, it’s not even that you need to go to university. You need to have postgraduate university before you can settle in.”

This phenomenon of credential inflation – in which jobs that did not require degrees even 10 years ago now demand them – is a horse that has left the barn, according to Harvey Weingarten, president of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

The head of a trucking company told Dr. Weingarten that he hired only university grads as truckers. The cab of a truck is complicated, he said, as are the logistics of warehousing. In any case, “if I have two students come to me, both prepared to be a truck driver and work for x amount of money, and one of them has a degree, why shouldn’t I hire the university grad?”

Yet even as degrees have become at once less precious and more indispensable, public funding for higher education has declined – when money is tight, governments pay for hospitals, not lecture halls. The shortfalls have led to ever-rising tuition fees. According to Statistics Canada, tuition rose 4 per cent this year, double the rate of inflation. Student debt now averages $27,000 for a four-year degree.

Many people carry student debt without even a degree to show for it: Nationally, about one in six students drops out or flunks out, most often before their second year (though some later return to school). If they stick it out, much of that time might be wasted, according to one U.S. study that found that 45 per cent of students could not show learning improvements after two years of college and 36 per cent were still languishing near pre-college scores even after four years.

Students are demanding better results, questioning both the value of their courses and the rising cost of a piece of paper that seems worth less and less. The situation has sparked loud dissent, from the protests this spring and summer in Quebec about tuition fees to the part of Occupy Wall Street’s critique of economic disparity that highlighted student debt loads.

Universities know they need to change and a growing number are trying out programs to become more results-oriented and responsive to the economy. They are grappling with the balance between teaching Machiavelli and training computer programmers by testing new ideas about how to select students, how curriculum should look, how students study and how to reward teaching without curtailing research.

These are early efforts, trial balloons in the postsecondary lab, but they lead back to a core question: What is the big-picture goal of a public university: to train skilled employees or to create a broadly informed, citizenry? Can it manage to do both?

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