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What is the return on a university education? Sadly, many Canadians graduate to find that their $30,000 debt (national average) has bought them employment prospects no better than when they left high school. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce estimates more than 500,000 postsecondary graduates will be working in low-skilled jobs by 2016, while 1.5 million skilled jobs will go unfilled. What is the problem, and how can it be fixed?

A study released in August by CIBC World Markets reached the unsurprising conclusion that too few students are studying for high-demand jobs. "[D]espite the overwhelming evidence that one's field of study is the most important factor determining labour market outcomes, today's students have not gravitated to more financially advantageous fields in a way that reflects the changing reality of the labour market," notes the report, co-written by deputy chief economist Benjamin Tal.

"[A] look at the dispersion of earnings across fields of study shows there is a much greater risk of falling into a lower income category for graduates of humanities and social sciences," the report notes, adding that the "biggest bang for buck" still comes from professional fields such as engineering, law and medicine.

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The CIBC report supports the argument that precious educational dollars are being wasted as universities continue to churn out surplus arts and social science students, while turning away applicants for in-demand fields.

Many universities are dealing with revenue shortfalls by trimming back programs such as engineering and medicine, killing the aspirations of students eager to get into those fields and undermining the country's economic and creative competitiveness. Meanwhile, even small steps to cut funding to the arts spark vocal opposition. The University of Alberta's recent decision to axe 20 arts programs came under fire from arts defenders, even though none of the programs had more than 10 students enrolled each fall from 2005 to 2012.

Feeling the heat, academia has shifted into defence mode, as reflected in a Sept. 3 Globe and Mail opinion piece by Max Blouw ("Universities educate, employers train").

Dr. Blouw, chair of the Council of Ontario Universities and president of Ontario's Wilfrid Laurier University, states that the primary business of universities is human development. "The university experience enhances self-awareness and personal competencies," he wrote, arguing that Canada's economic health "depends on the critical thinkers our universities are graduating. The next generation of leaders … can only be truly great if employers understand and value a university degree as a broad education, not specific skills training."

Dr. Blouw's take on the mission of universities is a clear enunciation of the very reason so many graduates face dismal career prospects. Universities, he contends, should not be producing "plug and play" graduates – that is, skilled workers "who can fit immediately into a specific job." That would come as a surprise to medical specialists conquering complex diseases, or to chemists developing products to transform our lives, or to engineers creating technological wonders.

Most assuredly, these professionals are self-aware, critical thinkers. But physicians also have to spend years learning the myriad details of the human body; chemists have to fully understand intricate molecular interactions; engineers must master advanced mathematics and physics to design a safe bridge or send a satellite into space.

The assertion that the role of universities is to graduate students without strong foundational knowledge, and to then expect employers to provide such skills, is incomprehensible. It's time for Dr. Blouw and his colleagues to put the interests of their students, and the country, ahead of defending their hallowed ivory towers.

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