Ideas

Why universities are failing to prepare students for the job market

Universities in the 21st century face a host of challenges, from slashed budgets to overworked contract faculty. And in a competitive economy, some students are wondering if a B.A. is still worth the time and money. IDEAS considers the idea of universities in crisis, what can be done to make them better and whether the system — as we know it — is worth saving.

Research suggests university education not meeting basic expectations

Universities in the 21st century face a host of challenges, from slashed budgets to overworked contract faculty. And in a competitive economy, some students are questioning if a university degree is still worth the time and money. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

Students returned to university and college campuses across the country last month, and while COVID-19 has raised new challenges, anyone who has spent time on campus in the last decade knows concerns about the state of higher education are nothing new. 

In the United States, where some estimates now place student debt at over $1 trillion, college enrolment is declining, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.  

In Canada, news earlier this year that Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., filed for insolvency and creditor protection has caused some experts to worry. In an emergency parliamentary debate about Laurentian, Green Party MP Elizabeth May called it "the canary in our educational coal mine."

The challenges don't stop there. 

Tuition in Canada has been rising for domestic and especially international students, whom universities increasingly rely on to pay the bills. Public spending on higher education has been stagnant or decreasing. More and more, universities lean on part-time or adjunct instructors. Students are graduating into a brutal job market. And there are studies suggesting universities aren't always successful in providing graduates with the critical thinking skills employers are looking for.

1 in 5 students in the Ontario college and university system are graduating with literacy and numeracy levels that do not meet what the OECD regards as basic standards.- Harvey Weingarten, former president of the University of Calgary

All of these issues, experts say, are to the detriment of students, the very people universities are intended to serve. They're also causing some both inside and outside the academy to question the benefits of a university degree.

"You can't lie to everybody all the time," said Oz Almog, co-author with Tamar Almog of Academia: All the Lies: What Went Wrong in the University Model and What Will Come in its Place, in reference to the benefits of a university degree.

"We are getting closer and closer to the tipping point in which youngsters will say: no more." 

Graduates not meeting expectations

The decision to go back to school wasn't easy for Rui Liu. She graduated in 2021 with her B.A. from the University of Toronto and has since returned to do a master's at the Women and Gender Studies Institute with an eye to possibly working at a non-profit. 

"Going back to school for the master's is something I still feel ambivalent about," said Liu.

"There's still a lot of economic anxiety and also existential dread, I think, for folks that are graduating in our generation. It's not the same economy that folks were entering even 20 to 30 years ago. I think there's a sense of needing more education in order to be competitive in this economy."

'There's still a lot of economic anxiety and also existential dread,' says Rui Liu, a graduate student in women's studies at the University of Toronto. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

It's no surprise that students expect their university education to give them the knowledge, skills and credentials needed to prepare them for future careers. 

Harvey Weingarten, author of Nothing Less than Great: Reforming Canada's Universities and former president and CEO of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, says it's the inherent promise of post-secondary education and also part of the image universities present to prospective students and their families.

"There isn't a university president alive who hasn't at some point said to the students, incoming or current, to the public ... that if you come to my university, you will leave here being a more critical thinker than when you first arrived," said Weingarten. 

However, studies show that the quality of education some students are getting doesn't meet basic expectations. 

"We have research studies that show that perhaps one in four… maybe one in five students in the Ontario college and university system are graduating with literacy and numeracy levels that do not meet what the OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development] regards as basic standards," said Weingarten. 

'Government support of the public university system in Canada has been flat, if not declining to varying degrees in varying provinces for a decade or more,' said author Harvey Weingarten. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

He also said research studies suggest 30 to 40 per cent of students "show no demonstrable change or improvement in critical thinking in the first two years of their education."

Weingarten points out such studies weren't done in the past, so it's hard to know how much this has changed. 

Adjunct instructors as academic underclass

As to how we got here, Weingarten said there are several issues at play. First, there has been a greater focus on research at universities throughout the country. 

"We have some spectacular, big research universities in Canada," said Weingarten. "But for a lot of other universities that pursued research, it ended up costing them money, and the way to fund that was to take some of the money that used to go to the education side to help reinforce and support a growing research infrastructure."

A lot of what people think they're getting out of college, you're not.- Historian Erin Bartram

Government spending on universities has also been in decline or stagnant across Canada. Weingarten said universities, operating on a business model that requires them to grow, have subsequently enrolled more students, many of whom are now taught by adjunct lecturers — that is, temporary instructors whose jobs pay poorly, feature little stability and often have no benefits.

Weingarten said the number of courses taught by part-time faculty in Ontario has doubled since 2000 and now accounts for roughly 50 per cent of the workforce. 

Numbers are difficult to come by, but some estimates find 75 per cent of U.S. instructors are now adjunct. Erin Bartram, a historian of 19th-century America and a former adjunct professor herself, said universities' increasing reliance on adjunct lecturers can have negative consequences for students.

U.S. historian Erin Bartram says by hiring adjunct instructors, students are not creating relationships with faculty or experiencing everything a university education should feature. (Submitted by Erin Bartram)

Both Bartram and Weingarten noted the challenge students face developing meaningful relationships with faculty. It can affect their ability to secure reference letters to apply for graduate school or to assist them with getting a job.

"A lot of what people think they're getting out of college, you're not, or it's much harder to get when you have this kind of precarious labour force," Bartram said. 

"Many students do not have the kind of interactions with faculty that I had when I was an undergraduate 40 years ago," said Weingarten.

Reimagining education

Almog says all this proves that universities no longer benefit students of what he calls the "digital generation." 

"The universities and colleges are supplying a diminishing personal premium of academic degrees," said Almog, who is also a professor of history and sociology at the University of Haifa in Israel. "We used to serve as a means to improve the employment potential and wage levels, but it's declining year by year."

Almog said that 40 per cent of waiters in the United States have a bachelor's degree, while 50 per cent of graduates in the United Kingdom are unemployed or work in jobs that do not require an academic degree. 

M.A. students Grace Cameron, left, and Rui Liu study at the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. They argue that the institution of the university has always been in crisis. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

Grace Cameron, a classmate of Liu's in Women and Gender Studies at U of T, said she'd like to see free tuition for students and greater pay for adjunct lecturers and graduate students, though she also questioned whether such changes would create a better system for students. 

Liu said she'd like a reappraisal of what university education looks like and who it serves. 

"It's a reimagining of what learning and education can actually be like if it was equitable, if it was actually dedicated to the well-being of people," Liu said. 

Teaching vs. research  

Weingarten said there are examples of innovation when it comes to university education in Canada, but you have to go back to the 1950s and '60s. 

He cited the creation of the University of Waterloo as a co-op university and "the introduction of problem-based learning" at the health sciences faculty at McMaster University in Hamilton.

"We need far more of [the] focused, small, boutique public universities that are low-cost, that work in a different model, like we're seeing erupt in the United States," he said. 

Weingarten pointed to Western Governors University, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, which is an accredited online university targeted at people who have some university experience but no degree. It offers a personalized program and allows such students to finish their degrees faster than traditional programs.

Weingarten suggests undergraduate programs and how they are delivered need to be re-evaluated. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

"The research we have says they have very good labour market outcomes," Weingarten said, "all at a cost which is no more expensive and perhaps is even lower than what the average undergraduate is paying for an undergraduate education in a public university in Canada."

Almog thinks such individualized institutions is where higher education is headed. 

"We should split the universities and colleges into research institutes on the one hand, and teaching institutes on the other," said Almog.

Although the problems facing universities are complex, Weingarten thinks they can be fixed. But for that to happen, "we need bold leadership. We need a spirit of experimentation, innovation, and we need the government to allow this to happen."

And if Canadian universities continue on their current trend? 

"We are a small country [that] depends upon the skills and the talents of our human capital, and our public education system [provides] that," said Weingarten.

"And if we aren't operating and firing on all cylinders, not only will it be bad for individuals, the country will suffer."


Guests in this episode:

Oz Almog is the co-author of Academia All the Lies: What Went Wrong in the University Model and What Will Come in its Place. He's also a professor of history and sociology at the University of Haifa in Israel. 

Erin Bartram is a historian of 19th-century America, women and religion. She's also an editor at Contingent Magazine. 

Grace Cameron and Rui Liu are M.A. students at the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. 

Harvey Weingarten is the author of Nothing Less than Great: Reforming Canada's Universities. He's also the former president and CEO of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario and former president of the University of Calgary.
 


* This episode was produced by Melissa Gismondi.

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