Crisis? What Crisis?


March 29, 2013 by John Douglas Belshaw


Without a doubt, it’s been a tough month for Canada’s universities.  Not a day goes by, it seems, without an announcement of cuts in staffing, salaries, and programs, or the opposite: a rising tuition fee structure.  Provincial governments have been emboldened by a discourse that blames universities for producing too many Humanities grads (boo, hiss) and not enough STEM and vocational grads (huzzah).  There’s a skill shortage out there and a bigger one coming and universities are doing precious little to close the gap.  Time to make some adjustments, some recalibrate, restructure.  March 2013 came in like a lion and will likely leave in the same manner.

The post-secondary sector as a whole is in convulsions.  A recent and provocative article in The Walrus, written by two lifelong Humanities (boo, hiss) scholars – Ken Coates and Bill Morrison – staked out much of the dialogue’s boundaries:

“Universities are uncomfortable with the reality that for most students they are chiefly job training institutions. Until they accept this fact, the disconnect between the academy and the world of work will continue to grow, and so will public dissatisfaction. As Canada struggles to cope with a lost generation of university graduates, all the while encouraging hundreds of thousands more students to enroll, the misalignment of education and employment adds to the uncertainties of young Canadians struggling to find their way.”

The thrust of their argument is that it’s high time universities got with the program and minted a new cadre of graduates whose skills more closely fit the current bill of needs.  It is not exclusively the fault of universities that we’re in this mess, they concede.  We might also blame liberalism.  That is, the liberalism of individual free choice.  Particularly as it extends to adolescents.  “[T]he shape and skill set of the country’s workforce is largely set by the decisions of tens of thousands of eighteen-year-old first-year students.”  I can only commend this piece of insight to every Minister and Deputy-Minister of Education across the land and I earnestly hope that they will paste that below their e-signature (instead of that annoyingly opaque line from Gandhi).

What a chilling thought. The fate of our economy is in the hands of people who are barely old enough to vote. Well, not at the ballot box, no.  But with their feet, yes, they’re fully enfranchised to vote with their feet. And with their tuition fee dollars.

The solution to this “crisis” seems to be along one of two paths.

Option 1: the state somehow persuades or coerces 18 year olds to make better choices.

Option 2: we take away choice from the teenagers full stop.

Of these options, Coates and Morrison prefer the former.  Having decried the invisible hand of the market, they maintain that by adjusting prices (i.e.: lowering tuitions for the degrees the Canadian economy needs) the consumer will respond accordingly.  It won’t put a Philosophy or a Zoology degree beyond the reach of anyone who really wants one, can stand the student debt to get it, and doesn’t mind a patch of underemployment at the end, but it would serve to stream students into those fields where employers are starving for want of the Right Stuff, like petroleum engineering or MBAs.  “Students are not prevented from following their intellectual noses, but they may end up doing so at their own expense.”

Surely this is liberalism still?  One set of choices made by adolescents replaced with another set of choices?  The adolescent is still, ultimately, in the driver’s seat.

That’s the problem with a democratic society.  People get to make choices.  And then they have to live with them (which, yes, sounds pouty). Or they can make adjustments (which sounds a bit on-yer-bike-ish).  Really, at the end of the day, those are the two paths available to each of us.

The question, then, is what purpose does a robust post-secondary sector serve?  It seems wrong-headed to blame a cat for producing kittens when what you really wanted was a puppy.  If universities are fair game for criticism it should be for not doing a good enough job of what it is they are supposed to be doing.  Clearly they’re not geared to produce vast numbers of plumbers or digital designers.  They’re built and funded to generate loads of BA’s and BSc’s. 

What do Coates and Morrison think of that? In January 2013, in the National Post, they sang a different song as they described “the main point of a university education”:

“Students do not come to campus to buy into a singular world view. They come to develop their own understanding of humanity. They filter, screen, experiment, innovate, reject and ponder. Some students buy into extreme ideas. Many others mock them. In the process, they develop an intellectual personality, one that fits with their experience and that shapes their adulthood.”

This they wrote in the context of a debate about the ideological environment on campus, not (to be fair) about the mission of a university.  But it does disclose another perspective.  If students – at the ripe old age of 18 years – choose to go to university to challenge themselves, to build their intellects, to learn how to think, then it really doesn’t matter whether the university is preparing them for employability. 

It’s disappointment for which they need to be prepared.


2 thoughts on “Crisis? What Crisis?

  1. Roger G. Albert says:

    John, have you ever read Thorstein Veblen? He wrote HIgher Learning in America a hundred years ago, but he’s still relevant. Most of his work is available for free download on Gutenberg.
    One of the problems with training people for jobs that already exist is that there is less emphasis placed on the future needs of society. It’s easy to train people to be engineers but harder to train them to think beyond the present. Now that I think about it, universities and colleges have not ever succeeded in producing entrepreneurs. Not sure it’s possible. Most education that happens at universities happens in spite of the organization and not because of it. The university ‘site’ can be a potboiler. I helped pilot WebCT in the earliest days when it was still at UBC. That happened because people got trained and developed expertise in online teaching then went from there. Not sure exactly where I’m going with this except to say that I’d be sad to see universities go further down the road of pandering to corporate interests and not prepare people to be responsible planetary citizens.
    Take care, John. Miss you.

    • Cheers, Rog. You’re quite right — Veblen shows there’s not much new under the sun. At the end of the day I think it comes back to first principles. What’s post-secondary meant to accomplish? If it’s train people for jobs, well, they’re just not up to the task, not as currently structured. Really. It’s like hoping to get snow tires out of a lipstick factory: both are manufactured products but the machinery, the materials, the marketing, packaging … everything is different. I’m beginning to think this applies as well to the way in which we teach ‘Trades’ at the college level. Apprenticeships aren’t what they used to be, and not a lot of people know that. As for the interests of the corporate world, I’m not sure I even know what that is anymore. If uni’s are pandering, then they’ve been pandering for a long time indeed. What if the corporations really just want more Sociologists … reasonably good writers and thinkers who will lift the heavy stuff in the offices of corporate Canada? It’s the oil sector that’s crying out for more engineers, not the national financial industry or Big Pharma. Is the status quo the corporate agenda? Your thoughts?
      And thanks for the kind words. I miss youse guys on the Big Island, too.
      – John.

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