On Campus

Academic drift in reverse

Universities should be considered unfit to meet the demands of the market

The “underemployment” of university graduates has become something of a scandal. Statistics Canada routinely informs us that a growing number of graduates are working in jobs they feel overqualified for. University students are frequently scolded for not studying subjects that give one “skills” that are “in demand.”

This reality — that until recently has been all but ignored in the fluffy discourse in Canadian higher education — has begun to permeate public discussions about “what’s wrong with university.” The most pointed criticism has come from sociologists James Cote and Anton Allahar with their fine book, Ivory Tower Blues.

Cote and Allahar detail, among other things, how reams of mostly unprepared high school graduates are shuffled into university with the promise of a challenging and interesting career, only to be disappointed in a job market characterized by credentialism.

While demand for graduates from programs such as engineering and the medical sciences remains strong, the supply of university graduates far exceeds the demand for people with such credentials. Many graduates are working in jobs that either don’t require a degree or in jobs that as little as 10 or 15 years ago only required high school.

The response from administrators has often been to further marketize the university. For example, Ken Coates dean of arts at the University of Waterloo co-authored a column that appeared recently in the Globe and Mail complaining that “there has been no co-ordinated effort to match university output with market needs.”

According to Coates, universities should expend greater resources to cater to students who lack the intellectual curiosity, and capability (even by our diminished standards) for a university education, by offering programs that “focus on workplace preparation and career skills.”

Academic drift typically occurs when community colleges and vocational schools creep into areas normally reserved for universities. What Coates appears to be advocating or legitimizing, with his vision of the university as being everything to everyone, is for this process to go in reverse. Though, I am sure he doesn’t see it that way.

What distinguishes (or what use to distinguish?) a university from other educational institutions is that students are (were?) expected to engage with a defined field of study unencumbered by other considerations.

What exactly permits this or that subject area to be considered university level is only that a sufficient body of scholarship has been developed, permitting the area to be a recognized field of the academy. Such development takes time, and students and professors alike engage in a sort of conversation with the material, its unchallenged truths, its controversies and when pertinent, its relevance.

It is quite true that universities have always prepared people for the working world, most notably in the areas of law and medicine. But, even such evidently relevant areas, are obviously themselves fields of academic study.

Even if you removed their relevance, contributing to the fields of medicine and law would still be justified in its own terms, that is, in advancing the conversation of a particular field. What’s more, graduates of professional programs are often expected to complete an apprenticeship (such as articling for prospective lawyers, or residency for doctors) outside the university.

To argue that universities should react to the needs of the market might seem a very natural response to resolve the disappointment many feel, but it is wholly incoherent. When fields of study, of which computer science appears to be the best example, overemphasize marketable skills, a trade off is required between the instrumentality of an education and the advancement of knowledge.

And given that markets change, requiring an ever changing and increasing set of skills, such a trade off may not only poison the type of education that distinguishes universities, it might in the end be entirely futile.

Most fields of study only prepare students for the workforce indirectly. When studying a discipline, certain skills are developed in the learning process, be they improved literacy and numeracy, or the ability to evaluate complex ideas, but such skills should not be the ends of a university education, only the means by which one succeeds. They are byproducts that may or may not be useful to the job market.

If universities are not meeting our economic expectations it is not because they are “failing” but because we expect too much from them. The idealized image of the university, of which I am advocating, has not completely withered. Though, it has always been under threat as governments have always sought to use universities for advancing social goals, be it, as in the past, the cultivation of a sense of patriotism or the training of a cultural elite, or as in today, in preparation for the “new economy.”

Unfortunately, the ivory tower is addicted to public money. Public money that is contingent on sacrificing intellectual curiosity in favour of the needs of the market, something that universities, should be unfit for. We could blame politicians, or we could blame the forces of globalization. However, the responsibility ultimately rests with those charged with guiding our universities. For if a dean of arts at a major institution like Ken Coates will not stand up for the university as primarily a place of inquiry, who will?

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