Bringing higher education into the 21st century

Posted on April 5, 2015 in Education Debates – Opinion/Comment – A Saskatchewan professor drafts a plan to fix the broken link between higher education and the job market.
Apr 05 2015.   By: Carol Goar, Star Columnist

Someone finally said it bluntly: Canada is producing too many unemployable university graduates.

“We owe it to ourselves to question outdated ways of thinking and deeply ingrained attitudes that constrain our capacity to adapt to an evolving labour market,” wrote Ken Coates of the University of Saskatchewan in a forthright report commissioned by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. “Young adults need a bracing reality check about the job and career opportunities that await them. Parents need to be much more realistic about their abilities and skills. Policy-makers need to shift away from Canada’s open-access approach to post-secondary education — based on the idea that everyone deserves a degree or at least the chance to try to earn one — to a strategy based on achievement, motivation and compatibility with national needs.”

Coates makes four principal recommendations:

Cut university enrolment by 25 to 30 per cent. That would alleviate the glut of liberal arts and general science graduates flooding into the job market without the skills employers want.

Rethink the funding formula for post-secondary education. By paying universities for the number of “bums in chairs,” policy-makers induce them to expand their enrolment with little regard for class sizes, the quality of education they offer and the ability of their graduates to find suitable work.

Be more open-minded about blue-collar jobs, community colleges and polytechnics. Young people with technological skills and workplace experience are better equipped to land a job and start earning a good income than those with non-professional academic credentials. Yet students are encouraged from the earliest grades to get good marks so they can go to a top university. “The mantra of our time appears to be: ‘You can be anything you want to be’ — a demonstrably false statement,” Coates says.

His message to corporate executives who commissioned the report: Don’t sit on the sidelines waiting for the government to provide job-ready workers. “It is crucial that we change our assumptions about the role business can and should play in upgrading the skills of Canada’s workforce.”

Most of the proposals in the report have been put forward — singly and often tentatively — by various academic and economic commentators. But no one has pulled them together in a clear, coherent reform package. And few analysts have been willing to bite the hand that feeds them.

Coates does so in two respects: he criticizes corporate leaders (who paid for his report) for under-investing in workforce training and he blames university presidents (seven of whom have employed him) for expanding enrolment with little regard for the employment prospects of their graduates.

What makes the 20-page analysis valuable for the average Canadian is that it tackles the questions governments, bureaucrats and educators are loath to discuss: Why are taxpayers spending billions of dollars producing university graduates who lack the technical, digital, creative and entrepreneurial skills to earn a good living? Why do pedagogues, parents and public officials hold up a university education as the gold standard in post-secondary learning when it doesn’t equip young people to get an economic foothold? Why do so many young people head for university believing it is the most assured path to prosperity? And how do we give Canada’s next generation the right tools to succeed?

Recognizing his prescriptions would be disruptive, provoke fierce resistance from a wide array of vested interests and be too controversial for any political party to wholly embrace, Coates set out four fairly safe first steps on the road to reform:

Provide students with clear, practical information about their career choices, the kind of training they need and the demand for workers in various occupations. Introduce co-op programs and apprenticeships at the high school level to give students a taste of applied learning and show them how polytechnics work. Use financial incentives to attract top students into high-demand, career-ready programs. Introduce them to potential employers well before they graduate.

It will take time, courage and leadership to rebuild post-secondary education. Coates’s blueprint might not be the right one. But it is a good starting point. It is plainly written, designed for the 21st century and cuts through the bafflegab of academe and government.

The 150 corporate titans who commissioned the report did not endorse it “Opinions in the paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives or its members.” But to their credit, they published it. They put some solid ideas on the table. They brought Canadians into the debate.

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