The death of the university

There is a fascinating essay in the October 2012 issue of The Walrus.

Titled “The Uses and Abuses of University”, the essay explores the complex and rapidly-changing relationship between Canada’s universities and the job market.  Authors Ken Coates and Bill Morrison advance a thesis that is hard to refute: Canadian university graduates are finding in greater numbers than ever before that their undergraduate (and often graduate) degrees are leaving them ill-prepared for the contemporary job market.  Coates and Morrison point out a few obvious exceptions such as medicine, chemical engineering, accounting.  In addition, any kind of skilled trade is in tremendous demand across the country.  What we have here is the essential reality of the law of supply and demand: any advanced society has great practical need for medical doctors, chemical engineers, and skilled tradespeople, yet there are relatively few people filling these positions at universities (or technical schools, in the case of trades).

What about the majority of university graduates? Coates and Morrison make the following observation: “[F]or those with a basic bachelor’s degree in English, chemistry, outdoor recreation, or psychology, jobs that fit their qualifications seem impossible to find.” The underlying problem, they state, is that “not all degrees are valued equally on the job market”, something any philosophy or music major could probably have told you already.

I’m not sure that this is an especially new trend. Twenty years ago, when I was a student at Simon Fraser University, one of my professors showed us a comic strip of a philosophy professor grinning in a smug manner at the final exam question he had written on the board: “How are you going to make a living with a degree in philosophy?” The students, of course, are horrified.  (I even remember that the comic was from Wiley’s Non Sequitur, though I haven’t been able to track it down on Google).   

Over two thousand years ago the great Chinese philosopher Confucius lamented, “It is rare to find a man who studies a subject for three years without thinking about earning a salary.” The ancient Greeks thought that work was a necessary evil which provided the means for the real purpose of human life: philosophy.  

My point is that there has always been something of a tension between education and vocation.  Certainly in the industrial age our schools are in danger of becoming career training centers like never before, but it isn’t as if this question is a particularly new one. 

Near the end of their essay, Coates and Morrison sum up the extent of the situation with words that, I suspect, many educators will find haunting (though some may not): “[T]he vast majority of students, and almost all of their parents, make it clear that they value university not for self-improvement but to guarantee a good job.  Universities are uncomfortable with the reality that for most students they are chiefly job training institutions.” 

I have a lot of ideas (and an even greater number of questions) about what educators should do about this situation, but I’m going to save that for another entry.  For now, it is worth repeating that “The Uses and Abuses of University” is an invaluable essay (well worth the price of the magazine itself) for highlighting the extent to which knowledge, for so many Canadian students, has taken a backseat to economics.

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