The Uses and Abuses of University

Canada’s post-secondary education system is failing our students, and our economy

by and Bill Morrison
Illustration by Graham Roumieu

• 3,221 words

Illustration by Graham Roumieu

In 2006, Philip Isard was an accomplished undergraduate, with solid A grades from the University of Waterloo in Ontario and glowing letters of recommendation for graduate school. Earnest, hard working, intensely curious, and personable, he epitomized the talent and energy of a top Canadian university student. He went on to complete a master’s in history, picking up what he thought would be valuable research experience along the way. After finishing two degrees, he had exhausted his savings, and his student loans were piling up. Unsure whether a multi-year struggle to earn a Ph.D. would land him a job, he opted for the world of work. He hoped to find a stable career in the public service, with an NGO, or in the private sector. His career and financial aspirations were modest and, he thought, attainable.

He applied for numerous jobs in and outside his fields of interest, dozens per month. With every rejection, he adjusted his expectations and widened his search, bolstering his resumé with volunteer work, short-term research contracts, and unpaid internships. Finally, about a year and a half after graduation, he landed a promising position with a newly established NGO in Toronto. After five months, though, his job was reduced to an unpaid volunteer position when the organization’s funding dried up.

For the next month, he travelled back and forth between Vancouver and Toronto, searching for entry-level jobs and tapping into a wide network of peers, colleagues, teachers, and friends. Equipped with a cellphone and a laptop, he arranged information interviews with businesses and non-profits across Canada. After weeks of travel, with an empty bank account and no real prospects, he returned to Toronto.

Isard is among the more than 254,000 graduates produced by Canadian universities each year, and a member of a new class whose education is poorly matched with the national economy. Undergraduates face various options. Thousands continue their studies at the graduate level, hoping the additional credential will generate better opportunities. Others exchange their mortarboards for admission to a trade- or career-oriented program; in 2005, about 13 percent of university graduates continued their studies at a college, while the rest headed into the workforce. But those who choose the latter route can encounter surprising difficulties, struggling as Isard did to find paid employment or, increasingly, accepting unskilled, low-paying jobs to stay afloat.

The majority of Canadians believe in the value of a university education—if not to strengthen the economy, then simply for personal gain. Surveys show that most Canadian students and their parents believe that high school graduates should go on to post-secondary education. A 2010 study, “Youth Decision Survey Report,” by the Nova Scotia Department of Labour and Advanced Education, showed that 60 percent of high school students believed their parents wanted them to go to university. According to Statistics Canada, 67 percent of parents wanted their children to go to university, compared with the 15 percent who hoped for a college or CéGEP diploma. A mere 2 percent wished for their kids to get a trade certificate.

Illustration by Graham Roumieu

According to a 2001 Conference Board of Canada report, a shortage of a million workers is expected in this country by 2020. Even now, thousands of skilled trades and specialized technical jobs go unfilled: the Merit Contractors Association’s Saskatchewan branch reported in June 2012 that 74 percent of its members had trouble hiring tradespeople when they needed them, and 42 percent couldn’t find them at all. Firms have begun recruiting in other countries, as far away as Romania and the Philippines, and classified ads across the country advertise jobs in advanced manufacturing, IT, skilled construction work, and health care. But for those with a basic bachelor’s degree in English, chemistry, outdoor recreation, or psychology, jobs that fit their qualifications seem impossible to find.

Watching the emerging employment crisis is like following a first-year economics lecture on supply and demand. University degrees originally derived their value from two elements: specialized expertise (medicine, engineering, law), and scarcity. When only 5 to 10 percent of high school graduates went on to university, a bachelor’s degree promised good value and job prospects. In effect, the graduates of the 1960s represented the workforce elite: highly employable, with great career potential. They did well economically in the following decades, giving rise to the often repeated but seldom examined statistic that, on average, university graduates would earn $1 million more over their careers than those with only a high school diploma.

If a degree carries such high returns, then more graduates, it would seem, must be better. Governments urged greater numbers of young people to continue their studies, believing (with more faith than evidence) that a tsunami of post-secondary graduates would produce a generation of high-income-earning and wealth-generating Canadians. We now have one of the world’s highest rates of residents with post-secondary degrees and diplomas, second only to South Korea’s. But not all degrees are valued equally in the job market, and as additional students graduate each year the university degree’s earning potential has, in some fields, fallen significantly.

Rapid growth in university enrolment helped to define Canada after World War II. In 1930, Canada had 33,000 graduate and undergraduate students. By 1950, fuelled by a federal commitment to reintegrate returned servicemen through university education, the nation’s student population jumped to nearly 69,000. Ten years later, it had reached 114,000. At the University of British Columbia, postwar demand for campus facilities was so great that abandoned army and air force camps were dismantled, relocated, and pressed into service as offices, labs, classrooms, and residences.

As late as 1960, universities remained the domain of white men; only one-third of full-time undergrads were female. Between 1965 and 1975, total enrolment leaped forward again, from 200,000 to 370,000. Almost every corner of the country shared in the post-secondary education boom. New campuses opened in places as diverse as Sydney, Nova Scotia; Prince George, BC; and Thompson, Manitoba. The country’s participation rate (the percentage of the population between the ages of twenty and twenty-four), which had been 2.8 percent in 1930, multiplied nearly nine times; by 2009, it had reached 25 percent.

Illustration by Graham Roumieu

There are now 1.1 million students on campus, nearly 60 percent of them women, and the expansion is self-replicating. University graduates are far more likely than other parents to send their children to university. Among young adults aged twenty-five to thirty-nine, 56 percent of those who have one parent with a degree also graduated; of those whose parents did not, only 23 percent completed their studies (although the latter number is growing quickly).

On the positive side, people who had once been excluded from university by gender bias (women), racism (people of colour and First Nations), or income (immigrants, the working class) are more likely to obtain a degree. On the negative side, this means that in the three generations since World War II, Canadian universities have shifted from being preserves of the rich, the gifted, and the intensely ambitious into the academic equivalent of intramural sports, where the premium rests on mass participation rather than on high achievement.

In the ’60s and ’70s, university expansion worked in concert with the needs of our labour force, as the Canadian economy began to shift its emphasis from the basic manufacturing, construction, and resource sectors toward more government employment, finance, middle management, and service. Today fewer than 2 percent of Canadians work in the agriculture sector, down from 40 percent in 1900. Between 2000 and 2010, manufacturing declined by more than 28 percent, or 571,550 jobs. The shortfall was made up in large part by a shift to service-based employment, by 2011 fully 78 percent of the jobs, and the market seemed primed for the surge in university graduates.

In his provocative 1995 book, The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin outlined the mechanization that has displaced many industrial and white-collar workers while improving their employers’ productivity, profitability, and competitiveness. Those jobs may never come back, and the associated decline of trade unions has eroded the wages, benefits, and working conditions of the manufacturing jobs that remain. The solution, argued proponents around the globe, lay in building a “knowledge economy” and a science- and technology-based society that would favour brains over brawn.

In response, both Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and President Bill Clinton made university attendance and advanced education cornerstones of their national innovation strategies, and Canada placed universities at the centre of its economic planning in the late 1990s. Expanding post-secondary education and research, so the thinking went, would bring widespread prosperity. The federal government poured billions of dollars into the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Canada Research Chairs program, academic funding councils, and other support for research and higher education. John Manley, a former Liberal deputy prime minister, remains a key advocate for such strategies. “Innovate or perish,” he was quoted as saying in a 2009 Maclean’s article. “The world is changing so quickly that the inability to find ways to adapt to the changing environment is detrimental, not only to the business sector, but to the country’s prosperity as a whole.”

Illustration by Graham Roumieu

The greatest fans of these expansion plans were the country’s universities; no one believed more strongly in the potential of the knowledge economy. They would have preferred cash grants, unconnected to enrolment (provincial funding is typically linked) and sufficient to match the escalating costs of running research-intensive institutions, but they quickly came to terms with the core message of twenty-first-century education policy: if you want more money, take in more students. So they did.

Changes to the world of employment, however, did not always align with these policies. Manufacturing and industrial jobs were indeed disappearing, but the technology boom’s white-collar jobs turned out to be far fewer and more specialized than originally predicted. White-collar employment has also been threatened, both by high-profile outsourcing activities—the transfer of call centres, accounting, and medical jobs such as reading X-rays—to south and Southeast Asia; and widespread technological developments such as online banking, Asian animation institutes, computer-assisted design and programming, and automated financial systems. Tech-based innovation is affecting other professional categories, too; for example, lawyers are just starting to feel the effects as companies adopt more streamlined electronic services.

Students who complete degrees in applied and specialized disciplines generally do fine; petroleum engineers are pulling in plenty of job offers and high starting salaries, and accounting students often have jobs lined up before they graduate. A strong market exists for accountants, certain kinds of IT specialists, economists, and environmental engineers, as well as nurses and other health care professionals, all high-demand areas with typical starting salaries of $45,000 to $60,000 a year. The same holds true for those finishing medical school or elite law and MBA programs (with post-MBA salaries ranging from $60,000 to $100,000), although there is currently a glut of aspiring lawyers. Doctors, especially, are often wooed with impressive start-up packages, which often include salary guarantees, and such inducements as assistance paying off student loans. For those who choose well—and circumstances can change in a flash if a sector of the economy tanks—university offers an impressive return on investment and attractive salary and career opportunities.

However, those with non-specialized degrees, bachelor’s in the arts and sciences (Rifkin calls them “garden-variety” graduates), face prolonged underemployment. According to James Côté, author of the 2007 journal article “The Hidden Crisis in the Canadian University System” and co-author of Ivory Tower Blues , the 1990s yielded some 1.2 million graduates, but only 600,000 new jobs that required undergraduate credentials. In other words, the system produced many more bachelor’s degree holders than the job market warranted. Since then, the number of these graduates has steadily increased, but—wracked by recession in Central Canada and the rapid growth of trades-based employment in western Canada—the demand has not risen along with universities’ output.

As Statistics Canada reported this past February, young Canadians bore the brunt of the continuing weak job market. The number of employed fifteen- to twenty-four-year olds fell by almost 27,000 in February, representing a total decline of close to 300,000 jobs since 2008. Although university graduates are less likely to be unemployed than those with only a high school diploma, this is because they end up accepting jobs that require a lower level of education. They are, in effect, underemployed, trading their degrees for the chance to compete for unskilled work.

Illustration by Graham Roumieu

Côté calls this the “downward cascading effect” of credential overproduction. The current unemployment rate among those holding undergraduate degrees is just 5.2 percent, though it is higher for recent graduates. As of June 2012, the unemployment rate for all Canadians age fifteen to twenty-four was 14.8 percent. More significant is the estimated underemployment rate: over one-third, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. This makes us second only to Spain in underemployment among OECD countries, as reported in a 2010 survey by The Economist. That statistic is key. Most university graduates get jobs, but more than a third accept positions that require no post-secondary qualifications, such as barista or car rental agent. Thus, universities can and do claim that their graduates find jobs, even while graduates complain that their career hopes have been dashed.

Markets, to return to our first-year economics lecture, are self-correcting, and so it is with unhappy graduates. One of the most common strategies for coping with the poor returns from a degree is to go back to college for practical, career-oriented training. Rick Miner wrote a startling 2010 report, “People without Jobs, Jobs without People,” that highlighted the growing gap between the skills of the Ontario workforce and the needs of employers. “There is a recent and interesting trend by which Ontario colleges are becoming ‘finishing schools’ for four-year university graduates,” he observed. “Students are increasingly completing a degree and then enrolling in a one- or two-year postgraduate certificate or diploma program in a college. [These decisions] reflect a recognition by students that an academic education is often not enough, that an employable skill is also required.” While the intellectual and even civic benefits of certification creep may be considerable, so are the costs and the strains on young adults and their families.

Other students cope with the underemployment problem by heading for graduate or professional school. The lucky and qualified find positions in medicine or other well-paying careers and do extremely well. Those who pursue a teaching certificate or a graduate degree in education are seeking a secure job, but find themselves running against the receding tide of opportunities. Harsh as it is to reduce graduate school to a financial calculation, Statistics Canada’s return on investment data from 2001 shows that the monetary benefit of advanced studies ranges from negative (for humanities students in Quebec) to marginal (for most social and basic sciences). Only the professional schools, particularly the top ones, show a solid return on time and money invested. In Quebec, the rate of return for a bachelor’s in history was about 5 percent, while it was more than 20 percent for medicine. One-fifth of bachelor’s degree holders had a negative rate of return.

In Canada, universities produce far too many graduates in some areas and too few in others, such as programs with a strong mathematical or applied science base. In British Columbia this year, roughly 25 percent of grade twelve students studied chemistry and 16 percent physics. This means the vast majority are not immediately eligible for the applied science and technology programs that are key to national economic development.

Such statistics call into question Canadians’ belief that personal choice trumps all other considerations when students apply to university. They are encouraged to study what they want, rather than to focus on what the economy needs. This means the 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. If they choose the humanities or basic science when the market needs engineers and nurses, the economy suffers, and so do they.

Illustration by Graham Roumieu

Many countries, including India and Estonia, deal with this by directing students into fields with the greatest need. To use a little-known example, the Estonian government subsidizes all of the seats in high-demand areas; those wishing to study other areas discover that only elite students receive full subsidies. Students are not prevented from following their intellectual noses, but they may end up doing so at their own expense. “The Five Challenges of Estonian Education,” a key strategic report for all levels of education, stands in stark contrast to the Canadian approach, downplaying student choice and emphasizing the nation’s economic, technological, and socio-cultural needs.

In April 2012, Jason Kenney, federal minister of citizenship, immigration, and multiculturalism, introduced sweeping reforms of immigration regulations after authorizing tens of thousands of temporary worker permits while able-bodied, well-educated Canadian graduates searched for employment. He also launched a blunt attack on national assumptions about universities: “Tens of thousands of these Canadians go into universities every year, taking courses that will leave them with loads of debt and no realistic prospects for a decent-paying job,” he told the National Post. “One of the things that frustrates me is that it seems to me that culturally perhaps in our education system we have devalued basic work and trades.”

Students and parents have responded to the situation by demanding low tuition fees, particularly in Quebec, and more access to university—two conditions that will produce even more graduates and will further erode the quality and value of undergraduate education. By fighting for those outcomes, they are pushing on the wrong end of the rope. As many Quebec students will discover upon graduation, anger about a small increase in tuition will not solve their real problems, which rest with their adaptability to the workforce.

Those who graduate from university have a lower unemployment rate than those who do not, but the continued growth in the number of degree holders is causing problems. As Statistics Canada reported in June 2012, highlighting overall employment growth for those with degrees, “This growth in employment… was not strong enough to absorb the rapidly rising population who have these credentials. Between 2008 and 2011, the population with a bachelor’s degree or higher increased 10.7 percent. As a result, the employment rate for this group fell from 75.0 percent to 73.7 percent.”

As beneficiaries of the Canadian university system, as both serial students and employees, we feel somewhat uncomfortable in challenging the status quo and calling attention to the employment crisis facing graduates. For students who want to learn, a degree is, entirely on its intellectual merits, a wonderful achievement and a lifelong benefit. But the 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. 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 enrol, the misalignment of education and employment adds to the uncertainties of young Canadians struggling to find their way.

This appeared in the October 2012 issue.

Ken Coates is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a faculty member at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy in Regina. He has previously worked at universities in British Columbia, New Zealand, and New Brunswick, and he served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan. He has published widely in such diverse fields as northern Canadian history, Aboriginal rights and society, and science and technology.

Graham Roumieu ( is a National Magazine Award winner and a regular contributor to The Walrus. He draws for The Atlantic, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

  • droc

    Well written. Speaking as an early 30 something with a basic science PhD, this article discusses a very real inconvenient truth. I see it in my generation everywhere I look.

    • hanson

      I am saddened by talent that is not being utilized – that goes wasted. Have you tried the oil sands?

  • a.

    My very working-class parents certainly were among those who upheld university as the golden standard: “go to university so you can get a good job”, you know, to have all the benefits they couldn’t have. I bought into that, and was severely disappointed when I couldn’t find a job that made use of my degree after I graduated. My younger brother was also urged into university despite not being cut out for it at all; he dropped out after a terrible first year and enrolled in a tech college where he did alright. The two biggest things I’ve learned from all of this:

    1. Universities are places of education, not job training (with a few exceptions, e.g. law, medicine — and even these aren’t things people specialise in until after an undergraduate degree). Students attending university under the assumption that it’ll make them more employable afterwards would be wise to remember this.

    2. We need to stop treating university education as the ultimate best route for students after high school. I think there’s a lot of pressure for kids to go to uni even if it’s not suited to their strengths. Some people will thrive in technical colleges and vocational programs. Some people will excel at trades. There’s no shame in any of that, but it seems like for a lot of kids and parents university is ~the~ thing to aim for, and anything else is substandard.

    University education is a very good thing but I would agree that we need to readjust our perceptions of it!

  • Dave

    I agree with a lot of the points raised. However, it seems like there is a tendency to disparage the undergrad BA + 1 year postgrad college certificate as if it were some kind of secondary path, less desirable than finding a job right after a BA, or as if it’s a backdoor option for those who are otherwise unable to find work.

    Doing only a college degree may leave employees with less developed soft skills – writing, communication, critical thinking and research skills – that are essential to successfully working in client relations and rising through managerial ranks. Doing only a BA leaves graduates without a practical foothold into a field (if they have not done an internship). Adding the 1-year certificate is ideal and in many fields it is really the minimum.

    This is not really new. My wife and I were both English majors. Both did post-graduate certificates. Neither of us would have been hired with our BA credentials alone.

  • Blake

    As a high school history teacher of 13 years, I feel very conflicted regarding my role in promoting the pursuit of higher education. I used to feel strongly that education was the answer and that any pursuit of knowledge will pay off in the long run.

    However, my views began to change while completing my masters degree in 2009. Although I wasn’t expecting any financial compensation and didn’t have to do it, my accomplishment basically went unnoticed by my school board and has had a minimal impact on my career. As someone who interviews teaching candidates for summer school, I meet many individuals who have completed their masters degrees only to find that they are in the same position as the dozen seeking one part time position.

    As my views began to change and I realized that the universities and faculties of education specifically were just becoming degree factories, I was accused of being too negative whenever I voiced the opinion that is clearly outlined in the article. Now, I just try to focus on teaching my classes and let the guidance councillors tell the students to pick something they’re interested in and parents set the expectation of university. However, I can’t help but cringe when a student tells me that they want to be a teacher when they grow up.

    • hopeful

      I wish I could easy you’re feeling of so called “cringing” with sharing my reality: I finished teachers college long time ago and I had thought for 1 year grade three students. Back then I was thought that one finds her profession and then that is the most precious thing in your life. Teaching was my heart and soul and still is. I NEVER taught ever SINCE according to my employment records. I was cleaning up after others, I learned a language and helped friends and family members to learn a new language, first year university colleagues photocopied my essays and tests, I assisted 28 managers to reach their goals in their work, I assisted people find educational materials in the library, I assisted teachers to have educational materials ready for their lessons, I helped my husband organize barbecue appreciation days for his employees, I did many paper work, I searched for many different information for friends and family in community databases, I listen and assess situations and try to find solutions, all the maternal duties that I do….. and this is to name a few in general……………..I believe that the skills, the habits, the strength to accomplish all these I learned in the TEACHER’S COLLEGE. I think everyone is a teacher inside. I might not be considered a teacher by others but the described tasks have moch more value than monetary compensation. Don’t get me wrong we do need money to survive but a person who went to teachers college will find a way to share their knowledge not necesarrily in a classroom but in the real life situations. I really value your coment though in your situation I probably have thought of pros and cons too. So a person who is interested in teaching might really want to be a public servise worker, a parent, a caretaker, a support worker, a receptionist or a cleaner. This is just my simple humble opinion.

  • Hooray Useless Degrees

    The authors make some reasonable claims here about the lack of meaningful employment for today’s university graduates. What I find curious about its central claim–that the university system is failing to prepare its students for the “realities” of the job market–is its desire to blame the universities, rather than the real culprit: the economy itself.

    Back in the early 2000s, when the economy was buzzing and there was a lot of opportunity, we didn’t hear so much about the universities. Then 2008 “happened,” and, let’s face it, it’s still happening in a lot of ways, and suddenly the universities are to blame for inadequately preparing students for what few jobs there are.Rather than take the longer view, which is that economies go through cycles, the authors here (and elsewhere, including confirmed plagiarist Margaret Wente at the Globe and Mail) decide that if the universities would become _nothing_ other than job preparation institutions and everybody go into fields having to do with science and management training, then everyone would get jobs and there would be no unemployed English majors with their “useless” degrees. Such claims fail to account for the fact that not everybody has the inclination to study such topics, to say nothing of the more glaring lack of logic here: that even if we institute Jobs U to the extent the authors here would have it, there is still the economy to deal with. If there aren’t jobs out there, if there isn’t a growing economy to welcome new workers into meaningful careers and vocations, then it doesn’t matter how many Management students the universities produce. They’ll be working at Starbuck’s too.

    The universities have been responding to this kind of misplaced critique, in any case, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the kind of thinking we have in this article. There are plenty of jobs-training degrees at the universities now, and they are popular with students because they, and their parents, have been primed by this kind of article to live in a state of perpetual fear and study only Jobs U degrees, and nothing else.

    So, all together now: it’s the economy, not the universities, that are the problem here.

  • John Dunbar

    Unfortunately the author is probably right in stating that universities should accept that “they are chiefly job training institutions”. Quality of life in the industrialized world has reached such a low point that we are happy to look at ourselves as mindless robots, turning out whatever junk will create wealth for our employers and allow us to stay away from the food bank (most of the time). Post secondary educational institutions have become simply the 13th, 14th 15th . . . . . years of K-12 and should happily assume such a role.

    We should not aspire to scrambling for the upper reaches of Maslow’s pyramid, just be happy to have our basic, physical needs met. It is not surprising that there is such a high incidence of mental illness, substance abuse, violence and depression expressed in the current population if this is all we can ever hope to achieve in our universal search for meaning. We would all be better off if we simply dropped out of society with its un-fulfilling opportunities and pursued alternate life-styles more suited to healthy and well developed minds.

  • Daniel d’Arthez

    The reality is that not everybody is interested in petroleum engineering. You can’t just take a human being and mold them into whatever job the market has need of. It’s an inconvenient truth when you measure everything in dollars, but it’s a truth nonetheless.

    Lots of graduates may be “unemployed, unhappy and drowning in debt” right now. I know a few. But whether a big proportion of them would be any happier if they studied nursing instead of doing something they were truly inclined to do, I am not ready to agree on. The fact is that the economy is pretty bad right now, and it’s not because people chose their field of study selfishly or unrealististically. Everybody is suffering.

    Be wary of this rhetoric of “Hey this is simple : we’ve been sinfully unrealistic, look at these numbers. Let’s feel guilty!” There’s always somebody that holds this discourse in hard times. Not to say that the author doesn’t make any good points, but sometimes reality is more complex than that.

    • Ian

      Good post!

      “”” In April 2012, Jason Kenney, federal minister of citizenship, immigration, and multiculturalism, introduced sweeping reforms of immigration regulations after authorizing tens of thousands of temporary worker permits while able-bodied, well-educated Canadian graduates searched for employment… he told the National Post, “One of the things that frustrates me is that it seems to me that culturally perhaps in our education system we have devalued basic work and trades.” “””

      This is what we need to look at. Also there was the statistic that less than 2% of the population works in agriculture. Our economy is based on pinching profit and the population boom we experienced in the last two centuries… Make it based on local resources, local food, local business and local culture. That will solve half the world’s problem.

  • Daniel d’Arthez

    Also : a society which universities are “chiefly job training institutions” is a society that gets dangerously close to cultural bankruptcy.

  • hanson

    I graduated into a recession in 1982 and have 2 Master’s Degrees, one in engineering and one in business. Our end of the baby boom went into university for jobs. Those lost souls who had no direction and little ability, mostly ended up as teachers or in the public service.

    The unionization of these two positions, and the failure of governments to negotiate reasonable contracts (Governments have repeatedly given the farm away to avoid bad press and get re-elected) have led to over payment of public sector workers in contrast to their private sector counterparts. Subsequently, a history graduate with few employable skills can aspire to work in the public service with great benefits and holidays. An engineer can aspire to work in the private sector (at RIM for example, or Nortel!!) at much lower hourly rates and few benefits. Since the engineer can aspire to fewer rewards in the marketplace than a teacher or public servant, the incentives are there for the individual to move out of the wealth producing private sector and into the better paying public servant or teacher role. If I were entering university now, I would aspire to be a teacher or public servant. It makes economic sense on the individual level.

    Unfortunately, we as an aggregate economy, can only compete in the world marketplace in 2 areas: innovation/technology and resources. Public servants and teachers cost our society money. They are consumers, not producers of wealth. Our financial incentives are skewed away from our economic collective good.

    Yes, not everyone can be a petroleum engineer. It requires a great deal of hard work and innate talent to graduate from engineering programs. Unfortunately, if those who can, are not paid well to be petroleum engineers and researchers at RIM, then they will move into teaching. Recently, a friend of mine, who was a principle designer of the Canadarm (anyone remember that moment of national pride) and most recently worked on the design of launch pad equipment on destroyers and other high tech wizardry; this brilliant engineer and creator of new technologies and holder of patents became a teacher. He was tired of the long hours and low pay and now teaches grade one and enjoys long summers at the cottage. He is one of many engineers that I know that have moved out of industry and into teaching.

    It is not surprising that guidance counselors advise students to follow their interests and their hearts in the belief that it will all work out. First of all, guidance counselors have typically never left school. Many took aimless degrees, then realized they needed to pay back student loans and took a few months of teachers college, followed by a few months in a classroom (how is this a profession?), and then went out and found a job. The echo generation provided the expanding demand for their particular talents. And if they had no talent at teaching, they were typically moved into guidance ( A number of my friends are principals and this is common practice.) The growing strength of public sector unions and the failure of governments to act as managers of the public purse in contract negotiations have provided these guidance counselors with excellent rewards. They followed their hearts and interests, if they had them, and then ended getting rewarded as if by magic, not realizing that their success was mostly circumstance.
    And it gets worse: Students today are not encouraged to excel. The emphasis in highschool is on graduating everyone. The majority of resources are devoted to the bottom 25% of students. This is part of a recipe for mass economic failure. We are failing to engage, prepare, instruct and generally educate our best and our brightest. We pay no attention to them until university (outside of a few gifted programs that usually go awry before the end of highschool. ) Where will the next generation of RIM, SPAR, and Nortel founders come from. (I would like to point to more successful tech companies, but we do tend to eat our own. Despite current situations of these companies, in there heyday, they employed thousands and generated billions of dollars of wealth.)
    If our schools were a sports team, they would do worse than the Maple Leafs. It would be like taking everyone on the hockey team, then focusing all your efforts on the non-skaters and players who were not athletic and not interested in hockey, and ignoring anyone who showed any modicum of talent. You cannot compete on the world stage when everyone makes the team!
    The universities in Canada are not focused on creating wealth for the next generation. Instead they are businesses, putting through as many bodies as they can. They overfill classes with hundreds in the lecture hall. If not enough Canadian bodies are available to fill the hundreds of new seats created, schools advertise abroad and fill the seats with higher paying foreigners (who often could not get into their own local university). The profits from foreign students fill university capital coffers allowing them to build larger lecture halls, expand their administration and pay themselves more while patting themselves on the back. Professors post office hours which only indicate when and where they cannot be found as they have no interest in sharing knowledge with students. Many of them cannot speak either of our official languages clearly and should not be in any role requiring communication. Many leave all teaching functions to TA’s who often don’t care and also cannot speak either official language. The university education of the students that I know, is appalling! The universities take the students money but give little in return.
    Historically, I was a fervent supporter of university funding. Now I find myself in the opposite camp. I resent every penny wasted by governments on our universities. Since they are not contributing to the wealth of our society, they should not be funded by taxes.

    • hopeful

      I came to Canada when I was 19 years old and I have studied English and French language, I finished my BA and I have to say that the University I went to literally saved my life. I do not have space here to describe what I lived through, but I would like to express my highest gratitude for the possibility to learn, it was home away from home. Where I was born there was a revolution at that time. I worked minimum wage jobs and I paid most of my tuition, I like to believe that I gave back to the community that I showed my thankfullness. I have a child who is Canadian and works conscientiously at her minimum wage job. I might not communicate as a Canadian born but I try very hard, when I work I make sure I make up with other skills and qualities, like in 25 years of working life I was punctual , never called in sick, I listened extra carefully to make sure I didn’t miss anything, I continuously study to keep on top of the changes. Before resenting someone who has difficulty speaking just know that it some of us try our best.

      • hanson

        Apologize and do not intend to offend. I believe universities are exploiting foreign students as cash cows, because of the higher fees they pay and by doing so are able to avoid free market stresses to improve their product (instead of a 400 person lecture hall, a 50 person, more intimate class where the professor actually interacts with the students). . I am not addressing the issues of immigration, the refugee system or employment statistics and situations.

    • Conservative

      Great comment. Well made points. Basic economic principal
      suggests that in order to prosper society needs to channel the limited resources
      that are available to the areas that needed the most and that may produce the
      highest returns.

      Spending tax payers money to subsidies degree programs
      that will yield no employment chances yet high levels of debt for students,
      makes no practical or economic sense. Neither
      the student themselves nor the society can benefit from this approach.

    • TheTideDoesntComeIn

      Did you copy your thesis from Atlas Shrugged? Or are you an engineer for John Gault Railways?

      I hope you don’t mind, but I don’t believe your degrees in business and engineering have made you an expert in education, psychology, and sociology. And I don’t believe anything in your comment actually holds water, but let’s take a closer look and see if it does. (We can even avoid your simple bait that private jobs offed to brilliant engineers at the top of their field pay less than low level public service jobs).

      1) You claim that ” First of all, guidance counselors have typically never left school. Many took aimless degrees…” What proof do you have to back this up? Are we to believe your common sense “understanding” based on an ultra small and unrepresentative sample of your friends perceptions of other people’s motives and lives (if, you, in fact are friends with any principals)? I thought engineers were supposed to understand the scientific method and representative sampling a bit better than this.

      2)”If our schools were a sports team, they would do worse than the Maple Leafs.” Is that true? Do we have evidence to support your claim? Well, actually no, we don’t. According to real data not “common sense” (i.e. made up assumptions), Canada has one of the best education systems in the world. In 2010 the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ranked the performance of our students 6th out of 70 participating countries. Additionally, according to the QS survey, our nation houses 5 universities that rank within the top 100 in the world. (This claim doesn’t hold up, well because it is flat out wrong).

      3) “Students today are not encouraged to excel.” After a simple survey of the scholarships offered in Canada it is obvious the majority of them are for those who are leaders, are outstanding students, and/or have high GPA’s. Not to mention many of the programs within the schools are extremely competitive and difficult to get into.

      4) “schools advertise abroad and fill the seats with higher paying foreigners (who often could not get into their own local university)” Do you have ANY proof to back this up? Do you think students come to Canada (and America) because they simply can’t get in anywhere else? Really? It has NOTHING to do with the quality of education offered in other places in the world, or the fact that Canadian degrees are often seen as a symbol of excellence across the world?

      5) “Professors post office hours which only indicate when and where they cannot be found as they have no interest in sharing knowledge with students.” Once again, I’m going to have ask where you got the evidence to support this claim? Did you do your own study on this as well?

      If in fact you are an engineer, I’d stick to that, making claims with no evidence about society, individuals, and education, certainly doesn’t make you an expert on any of those topics.

      • hanson

        wow – Your rebuttal seems to boil down to – 1. I am an engineer and MBA so cannot understand the humanities (really ? I should stick to engineering? thats what you’ve got?)
        and 2. ‘Thats wrong’ or ‘You haven’t sited proof” Well then you go ahead and claim things with no references and proof either. The rules of engagement should at least be consistent my dear!

  • hopeful

    This is a sad truth.. I graduated and received my BA then I finished college to get a certificate to specialize. Now, I wold take any job to be able to meet my family’s basic needs. I was rejected from several jobs and some of my co-workers told me in confidence that it is because I am over qualified one person said it like this: “You are too good, you are making us feel bad that is why you cannot be on our team!” It is not only the rejection and the need to survive but also the debt that is difficult. Despite of this, I believe that education is a basic need for an individual to live. WE do need leaders- managers to have meetings with their employees where they address the issue of acceptance, discriminating or feeling bad about a co-worker just because that person likes to read it is similar to discriminate because of race, religion, gender etc… or even talking about these statistics makinng it more visible to the public would be great and showing the uneducated that we do have the same basic needs and we do ave issues that they can relate they could accept us as friends as co-workers. Ultimately, the focus at work should be to get the job done not what we individually like to do in our personal time.

  • carmen m.

    This phenomenon (humanities graduates returning to trade school) has inadvertently resulted in a generation of more educated, literate tradespeople. Not such a bad thing.

  • Ian

    “”” In April 2012, Jason Kenney, federal minister of citizenship, immigration, and multiculturalism, introduced sweeping reforms of immigration regulations after authorizing tens of thousands of temporary worker permits while able-bodied, well-educated Canadian graduates searched for employment… he told the National Post, “One of the things that frustrates me is that it seems to me that culturally perhaps in our education system we have devalued basic work and trades.” “””

    We need to look at this, and the fact that less than 2% of the pop works in agriculture. After the population boom in the last two centuries our economy has been based on pinching pennies for profit and maximizing the efficiency at the bottom level… Make it based on local farming/food/restaurants, local resources, local business, and local culture and you solve half the world’s problems, while preserving the uniqueness of places that have felt the heavy hand of globalization.

  • Katie C

    Coming from Calgary, I feel like there is an over-emphasis in this article and in general discussion on “practical” degrees. My friends graduating from engineering were just as screwed over by the recession as anyone else, and many had to deal with getting laid off and volatility in the markets. Now things are a little more stable for them (and everyone) but the fact remains: there is no longer a “sure thing” in the market place.

    Canada’s Labour Market Opinions (which guide the hiring of TFWs) often get projected labour needs wrong. 4-5 years ago people were encouraged to become teachers, because we “needed teachers” – those very same new grads who are now struggling to find work among layoffs and a tight market. And they were told that it was a “practical” degree, just like management or engineering or nursing. We need a balanced labour force – the world doesn’t just work with nurses and managers and engineers, there is a little more diversity than that.

    Our current government and the private sector are content with the situation of letting new grads and new Canadians (or TFWs) fight it out in the marketplace, because they win: they get the best selection of talent and people feel like they are pitted against each other so there isn’t much protest about it – just about each other. And honestly, I think that is really unfortunate. New Canadians have a lot skills and innovation to offer to the marketplace, and so do new grads. Employers need to learn how to communicate what they really want, or stop using schools as professional skills builders. It is a bit disingenuous to put all the blame on schools or governments when employers have a significant role in this conundrum too.

    University and technical schools each have their strengths, but I am excited to see more programs that are beginning to bridge the two together. For example, the Bachelor of Communications with the University of Calgary and SAIT is a great program which allows students to get two years of University and critical and theoretical thinking, and two years of real and practical skill building in a media program at SAIT. And they’re roaring to go with their degree and professional certificate after their four years are done!

    But ultimately, this debate is devaluing the importance of knowledge acquisition in favour of being a cog in the system – and only fitting what an employer needs. Limited education can be a hindrance when the market changes – and it will. A lot. A lot of universities are encouraging entrepreneurship programs, and I think that is one of the best developments in a long time.

    Granted, I’m really biased towards education as a good thing. I quit my real job to go do my Masters (and not a professional one!), so I just have to hope knowledge pays off in the end… And put my creative adaptation skills to use!

  • Conservative

    Well made points. Basic economic principal
    suggests that in order to prosper society needs to channel the limited resources
    that are available to the areas that needed the most and that may produce the
    highest returns.

    Spending tax payers money to subsidies degree programs
    that will yield no employment chances yet high levels of debt for students,
    makes no practical or economic sense. Neither
    the student themselves nor the society can benefit from this approach.

  • Paul

    The simple truth is that everyone teaching our kids in high school are products of University. So of course they will push their personal experience as being the best route. Of course our children want to be like their role models, i.e. teachers. The school system needs some electricians, plumbers, millwrights logistics managers etc to have a presence in high school. To actually come in to science classes, and accounting classes and talk about what it is like out there, and show the opportunities that abound.
    I have tons of friends who have started businesses without a degree and make a great living, yet high schools don’t teach entrepreneurship, customer service, networking, basic personal finances etc etc.
    Teachers teach people to be teachers…no diversity in ideas leads to no diversity in the emerging workforce.

  • Klong

    There is a larger societal cost to all of this. If people are spendng their 20’s and into their 30’s getting and paying for their education, only to get a McJob when they graduate, they delay accumulating the wealth they’ll need to support their retirement. So where previous generations may have had their homes paid for by 45 and be saving in their 50s and 60s, the current generation is heading for retirment with an unpaid mortgage and very little savings. Throw in a divorce, some downsizing or a midlife return to school and Freedom 55 becomes a cruel joke. But our economic model depends on this outdated construct.

  • Slow Learner

    I hope he likes my case study.

  • Sin How

    no oh-oh-oh
    stick 2 the stuff u know
    if u wanna b cool
    follow 1 simple rule
    dont mess w the flow no-no
    stick 2 the status quo

    • Sin How

      wow gud point

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