A challenge to doubters: university degree is worth more than a college diploma

University of Manitoba president David Barnard challenges a recent CBC Manitoba editorial that questions the value of a university degree compared with that of a college education.

Recently, an editorial aired on CBC Radio One questioning the value of a university degree compared with that of a college education.

The author of the editorial, Ken Coates, is an alumnus of the University of Manitoba, founding vice-president of the University of Northern British Columbia and currently Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan.

He argued that there is a “mismatch between a university education and the contemporary job market.”

I challenge his view on universities and the workforce.

The University of Manitoba graduated a record number of medical students in 2010. (CBC)
As president and vice-chancellor of the University of Manitoba, I admit to having a certain bias in this regard. I am also chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, and so I am familiar with a broad spectrum of Canadian higher education institutions and their importance to our economy and the vitality of our country.

Accordingly, I can appreciate the relative value and importance in today’s economy of both a university degree and a college diploma. Encouraging enrolment in one form of post-secondary education over another is not productive; in fact, many of our young people flout the debate altogether and choose successful post-secondary trajectories that include both university and college education.

U of M grads make a difference around the world

One only has to look at news headlines to appreciate the impact University of Manitoba graduates, as the example I am most familiar with, have on the lives of people everywhere.

Some of our medical researchers and students have returned from the field in Sierra Leone, working in the heart of the world’s worst Ebola epidemic.

Many candidates running in the upcoming civic election and as school trustees are University of Manitoba graduates.

And dozens of our students and faculty are involved in partnerships with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights opening this week.

University graduates have found positions in some of the most prestigious, the most impactful and the highest-earning professions.

Donna Neufeld on graduation day at the University of Manitoba medical school this year. (CBC)
According to Statistics Canada, between 2008 and 2013 some 800,000 net new jobs for university graduates were generated in Canada’s economy.

During the past five years, 20 per cent more jobs were created requiring a university education compared with six per cent for jobs requiring a college or trade diploma certificate.

Looking back even further, since 1990 there have been more than 1.8 million jobs created in Canada in professional areas, and more than 1.5 million of these were filled by university graduates.

In 2011, when the national unemployment rate was 6.2 per cent, the unemployment rate for university graduates educated in Canada was just 3.7 per cent, compared with five per cent for those with non-university certificates or diplomas.

New jobs demand more skills

A university degree provides an edge in today’s job market. Almost 90 per cent of young university graduates age 25 to 29 were in full-time jobs in 2013, and more than 80 per cent of these were in full time positions.

What’s more, the vast majority of these jobs did not exist five years ago. The demand for university graduates’ skills and knowledge will continue to rise.

Demand for university graduates across Canada is concentrated in professional, management and administrative occupations, but employment is growing at all post-secondary levels.

Jordan Smith, a graduate of Memorial University in St. John's, took his job hunt to the streets of Halifax in 2009. As employment numbers are still bleak, many graduates are trying to explore new ways to find work, experts say. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)
In fact, the majority of jobs facing skills shortages require a university degree, including: managers in engineering, science and architecture; managers in health, education, social and community services; optometrists; auditors, accountants and investment professionals; registered nurses, dietitians and nutritionists; physicians, dentists, pharmacists and veterinarians.

Additionally, data show that income increases more rapidly for university graduates in full-time positions, compared with employees in trades, apprenticeship positions or with college diplomas.

Secondary education the way forward

Young people make their choices accordingly, and most of them do quite well by those choices, whether they achieve university degrees or college diplomas.

Indeed, the large number of youth in their 20s who have already completed trade, apprentice and college programs counters the mistaken impression that everyone goes to university.

In fact, more young men and women in their 20s have completed a college level program than a bachelor’s degree.

No matter what path they take, a post-secondary education will help ensure they enjoy rewarding careers and contribute productively to the economy.

Should these young people chose to attend university, they will find they have the opportunity to learn in many exciting settings, whether through co-op placements or internships, service or co-curricular learning.

University students today are often involved in studies on peacekeeping and conflict resolution.

They are contemporary musicians and actors performing on stages across North America and abroad.

They are in devoted farming families, raising crops to feed Canada’s ever-increasing population.

Ultimately, university graduates can expect higher salaries than college graduates by the end of their careers.

But more importantly, the skills and critical thinking they acquire can take them across the country and around the globe.

The future is theirs to define and hold.

David Barnard is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Manitoba


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.