Over half a million post-secondary graduates will be working in low skills jobs by 2016, while 1.5 million skilled jobs will go unfilled
By Gwyn Morgan : What is the return on a university education?
Sadly, many students graduate to find that their $30,000 debt (cross-country average) has bought them employment prospects no better than what they had when they left high school. After four or more years on campus, they emerge on the wrong side of the skills without jobs . . . jobs without skills gap that the Canadian Chamber of Commerce estimates will see over half a million post-secondary graduates working in low skills jobs by 2016, while 1.5 million skilled jobs go unfilled. So what’s the problem?
A study released recently by CIBC World Markets reached the unsurprising conclusion that too few students are choosing to study in high demand areas. Deputy Chief Economist Benjamin Tal, co-author of the report stated: “Despite 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 realty of the labour market. Across subjects, the biggest bang for the buck comes from fields such as medicine, law and engineering. 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 the humanities and social sciences . . . Most Canadians are aware that, on average, your odds to earn more are better with a degree in engineering than a degree in medieval history.”
The CIBC study comes after commentators, including me, have pointed out the folly of continuing to waste precious educational dollars to turn out huge numbers of surplus arts and social science students, while turning away applicants for in-demand fields. Compounding their appalling academic inertia, universities are dealing with revenue shortfalls by cutting back engineering, medicine and other skills-short enrollment in equal proportion to skills-surplus programs, killing the aspirations of an even greater number of high achieving students, while further reducing the economic competiveness of our nation.
Even tiny steps towards reducing arts funding meet with vocal opposition. Last months’ decision by the University of Alberta to axe 20 arts programs, none of which had more than 10 students enroll at any point in the past eight years, came under heavy fire from ever vigilant defenders of arts funding.
Feeling the heat, academia’s vested interests have shifted into defense mode, as evidenced by a commentary headlined Universities educate, employers train by Max Blouw, chair of the Council of Ontario Universities and president of Wilfrid Laurier University, which ran September 3 in the Globe and Mail. Here are few excerpts from his commentary:
“Universities are primarily in the business of positive human development . . . The university experience enhances self-awareness and personal competencies . . . Our economic health depends upon the critical thinkers . . . 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”.
Blouw’s take on the mission of universities is an astonishingly clear enunciation of the very reason that so many of his graduates find themselves facing dismal career prospects. And his derogatory labelling of graduates from faculties that do provide specific skills training as “cookie cutter workers” would come as a surprise to medical specialists striving to deal with complex diseases, or to chemists whose work has led to the development of myriad synthetic products that have transformed our lives, or to engineers whose work delivers the technological wonders that surround us. Most assuredly, these professionals are self-aware critical thinkers, but medical doctors have also learned the knowledge of the human body discovered by those who have come before, chemists have learned the facts about the molecular interactions that form the foundation of their work, and engineers have learned the advanced mathematics and physics principles needed to safely design a bridge or calculate the gravitational forces upon a satellite flying through interstellar space.
It is simply incomprehensible to me to assert that the role of universities is to graduate students without such basic foundation knowledge and then to expect employers to provide it. It’s time for Professor Blouw and his colleagues to put the interests of their students, and our country, ahead of defending their elitist perch in those hallowed ivory towers.
Gwyn Morgan is a retired Canadian business leader who has been a director of five global corporations.
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