Beyond job training: Cultivating an expanded role for universities

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Whew. The Maclean's issue ranking Canadian universities, just out, still bases its ratings on what goes on in them, rather than their success in supplying grads with jobs. Everywhere else in the debate over higher ed with which we've been inundated (whoops, bad phrase this week, call it a ceaseless din), the focus has been on the failure of universities to assure jobs for grads. That's because their "education is poorly matched with the national economy" and the jobs now available, say professors Ken Coates and Bill Morrison in a recent book and Walrus article. Grads may still have a better shot at jobs than non-grads, they concede, but the "rate of return" on their educational investment as baristas or parking valets doesn't justify the costs incurred. U.K. economist Guy Standing predicts an "educational bubble" where those people will find themselves underwater with the student loans they owe versus payback ability. For this, we're supposed to blame universities and demand that they change, or shrink their size and scope.

That's like blaming carmakers for the accidents on a washed-out road. Universities didn't create the economic mess or jobs "mismatch." It was created by governments, think-tanks, opinion leaders and the business classes, who demanded globalization and used it to ship jobs to low-wage areas -- not just in manufacturing but in "knowledge" work like call centres. They broke it, they should own it. It's isn't a role that universities were made for.

What is? Two things, I'd say, especially in the undergrad, liberal arts years. Students get to read widely and gain a sense of what human beings have been up to over the millennia. This expands their awareness and readies them to appreciate their own lives while contributing to enhancing the lives of others. Plus they learn to think critically, which is important to functioning as citizens rather than social cogs. Universities may not often achieve those ends but it is what they're suited for, versus spitting out a customized workforce.

It's true universities have expanded democratically in the past 50 years and become "mass" institutions -- usually said with a sneer in the current debate. But what's wrong with that? Why shouldn't everyone gain access to a more fulfilling life and the kind of critical articulacy that lets them participate fully as citizens?

Meanwhile, who'll deal with that jobs mismatch? Those best situated: governments, business, society at large. There are models, like apprenticeship programs, widespread in Germany, that get public support. Does this mean universities should pull back and cease being "mass" institutions? Not necessarily. Why can't you have both: citizens with liberal arts training for its own value and who acquire real job skills, including crafts and trades. In Finland, for instance, people can switch between practical and academic streams during their student years. Doctors and lawyers get their years of liberal arts before their specialized training. Why shouldn't plumbers or fashion designers?

OK, but how unreal and utopian is that in an economy where job seekers are desperate? Well, consider this. Productivity continues to increase, through automation etc., while overall wealth expands, perhaps doubling in the last 30 years. Even without maldistributed income, it would make sense to shorten the work week, share jobs and expand most people's leisure time. But you need an articulate population to discuss these matters, and an educated one to cope with the "free" time that would result. Expanded university roles make sense in such a light, versus the stupid, irrational patterns that now blight so many lives.

One more thing.

This society squanders tons of potential. Undergrad years are when the young can discover areas they mightn't have known could exist for them: teaching, the arts, journalism, social work, entrepreneurialism. In the very limited university teaching I've done for decades, I've seen it often. A kid enrolled in commerce, science, whatever, happens to take a course in X and falls in love with it. One potential they sometimes stumble on is their own capacity for leadership. Kids of wealth usually know about this plethora of possibilities but others don't. It's immoral, irrational and dystopian not to allow everyone to discover these possibilities, for themselves, and for the sake of their society.

Photo: Gianpierre Soto/Flickr

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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