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In my opinion

The “Skills Mismatch” and the Myth of the Irrelevant University

Allan Rock, President of the University of Ottawa, decimates the argument that universities are “out of touch” and not producing graduates for “real jobs”.


President Rock gave the following speech on May 9, 2013, to the Canadian Club of Ottawa.

Thank you so much for your warm welcome. I am grateful to the Canadian Club for the opportunity to speak today. I also want to thank the distinguished Head Table guests for joining us. [Acknowledged board members, vice presidents and other university and college presidents.]

This is a very special week for the University of Ottawa. Today, we launch our annual Homecoming events, 2013 edition. In the next few days, we expect to host hundreds of proud alumni. The sounds you’ll hear from Sandy Hill will be from the echoes of memories shared and the joy of friendships renewed. It promises to be a great weekend.

I took up my present position in 2008. As you’d expect from someone who just spent almost five years at a university, I have learned a great deal. And I hope to pass the examination!

Today, I’d like to share some of what I have learned and use my turn at this influential podium to make my own modest contribution to the current debate about the value and usefulness of a university degree.

Judging by the popular press and recent public pronouncements, universities have fallen out of favour. Hardly a week goes by that universities are not accused of being “out of touch” with economic reality and unresponsive to current job market needs.
The Globe and Mail ran a column last month about the declining value of a university degree. The headline said it all. It asked: Do you want “Fries with that BA?”

In October, The Walrus magazine declared solemnly that Canada’s universities are “…failing our students and our economy.”

In the United States, there is talk of legislation that would tie funding of public universities to the percentage of graduates who get jobs.

Some have encouraged a systematic effort to direct high school students away from the irrelevant university and towards community colleges, so they will at least have a fighting chance to find employment and live a useful life.

Many insist that universities must change dramatically to meet society’s (and especially the economy’s) needs.

Meanwhile, the federal government and some provincial actors have pointedly provided or proposed additional funding recently for community colleges, but not for universities, signalling their view that the market-oriented colleges are the better investment.

Those of us working in the university sector often have difficulty recognising our institutions as they are portrayed in the media.

Today I want you to look at the complete picture. Indeed, let’s do something that’s unusual in Ottawa these days: let’s look at the evidence in its entirety before jumping to a conclusion.

The Starting Point

Today’s universities, like my own, are complex institutions that exist in several dimensions at once.

Our scholars contribute to the social and cultural life of our communities. Our scientists develop new products and discover new treatments, and work with the private sector to bring them to market. Our very presence as employers, as consumers and as centres of activity contributes to regional prosperity. In the case of the University of Ottawa, we deliver over 4 billion dollars in economic impact to the National Capital Region each year.

But perhaps most fundamentally, we educate the next generation of Canadians in our undergraduate programs. It is that dimension that I want to address today. In doing so, I want to respond directly to the allegation that undergraduate programs in Canadian universities are irrelevant, and are producing legions of graduates with little hope of employment.

The “Skills Mismatch”: Which One?

Let’s start with what is often referred to as the “skills mismatch”, and the problem of “jobs without people and people without jobs,” and look at how these themes relate to universities.

There is an undeniable shortage of qualified people to fill open jobs in the skilled trades in some parts of the country.

But there is another important shortage. A recent report from CIBC World Markets found that many of the jobs where there are labour shortages require a university degree.

The report identified 25 professions that have shown persistent signs of shortages. These included optometrists, engineers, managers in health, education and construction, doctors, dentists, social workers, even clergy. What do these jobs have in common? Almost all of them require a university degree.

And contrary to the myth of the irrelevant university, there continues to be a strong demand for university graduates.

Graduates are getting jobs related to their field of study, even in these uncertain economic times.

Here are some of the findings from the latest employment survey commissioned by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and carried out by an independent firm, CCI Research Inc.:

  • Almost 88 percent of the 2009 graduates surveyed said they were employed within six months of graduation, and over 93 per cent reported they had a job two years after graduation. These high rates, only slightly lower than the previous year’s employment rates, are encouraging given the fact that 2009 was the depth of the recession.
  • The survey also found that graduates get jobs in their field of study. Over 76 per cent of graduates with full-time employment reported that their jobs were related to their education. Two years after graduation, over 82 per cent of those in full-time employment were in positions related to their degree;
  • Recent graduates from Ontario universities earn approximately 32 per cent more annually than those with a college certificate or diploma, and 53 per cent more than those with no postsecondary education.
  • And here are some national numbers. From 2004 to 2012, employment growth for university graduates outpaced all other levels of education: jobs grew by 40 per cent for those with a university degree, 24 per cent for those with a college diploma, 4 percent for the trades and only 6 per cent for those with a high school education.

And what about workers to fill jobs in the skilled trades? Not surprisingly, universities cannot provide them. It was never expected that we would.

Canadian community colleges are well-positioned to do so, and to offer a range of other useful programs as well. The colleges play a unique role in post-secondary education that is not at all in opposition to universities, but increasingly in partnership with us.

I am delighted that Denise Amyot is here today. Denise has just been appointed President of the Canadian Association of Community Colleges, but also sits on our board of governors at the University of Ottawa. I know that she is keenly aware of the need for greater coordination among post-secondary institutions. I look forward to working with her in her new capacity.

There is another “skills mismatch” that I want to address. There may be students in university who would be better served by college, just as the reverse is no doubt true. There may also be a quiet bias at work, contributing to that mismatch, as some students are pressed by family or friends to attend university because it is seen as the more “academic” or prestigious option. That bias is insidious and unfair. We must do everything we can to dispel it. Young people should be free to choose the option that is right for them, unburdened by false perceptions and distorted views.

Colleges and universities are working to find better ways to identify students who should re-examine their choices after the first year or two at either college or university. We need to make it easier for them to switch.

So let’s recognise the vital role that colleges play. Their shorter, less-expensive, market-oriented programs will play an increasingly important role in meeting our labour market needs. But it does not follow that undergraduate university education has become obsolete or unnecessary. Again, students need to choose the option that is best for them.

The nub of the argument

Despite the clear and compelling evidence of their value, the drumbeat of criticism for undergraduate university programs continues. The caricature involves out-of-touch professors delivering dry lectures in stuffy classrooms on obscure topics from an out-dated curriculum, producing hapless graduates with little insight into contemporary needs.

Whoever drew that cartoon has not stepped foot on a Canadian campus recently. The portrayal is plain wrong, and fails to take into account the dramatic changes in our universities’ curricula and teaching methods. The days of the isolated “Ivory Tower” are long-since past, as universities increasingly work with community partners to bring our programs and courses alive in practical settings.

At the University of Ottawa, we have ten faculties in which we educate our 42,000 students in 450 programs (in both official languages, by the way!). And while those faculties cover the full spectrum of learning, the stereotype of the irrelevant programs is almost invariably associated with the arts and humanities.

The practical value of our professional faculties is rarely challenged: Medicine, Health Sciences, Engineering, Law, Education and the Telfer School of Management.

What about the Faculty of Science? Our critics may be prepared to concede that the skills of our chemists, mathematicians, biologists and physicists match usefully with contemporary needs.

That leaves the social sciences, arts and the humanities.

And now we are getting into grey areas…

How do graduates of our Social Sciences Faculty contribute? Well, psychologists are in high demand. Criminologists help us understand how to manage some of society’s most challenging issues. Some economists have gone on to rewarding careers—one of them even serves as Prime Minister of Canada!

But what about the students learning how to “commit” sociology? (An offence for which I expect we will soon have a new mandatory minimum penalty).

And those political science scholars who analyze public policy? Here I can hear our critics saying that we are starting to get onto very thin ice.

And then we get to our Faculty of Arts.

Well then, there is the heart of the problem, you say. Our 7,500 students in that faculty are at high risk of irrelevance you insist.

But is that so?

The faculty’s departments offer courses in 43 disciplines. Many have a direct connection to careers in high demand. Geography graduates probe the effects of climate change and help plan effective land use. Those skilled in modern languages hold the key to global learning, and how best to acquire a second or third language. The communications department, by far our largest, prepares students for careers in growth areas like new media, public relations and communications strategy.

But what about the rest? English literature? History? Philosophy?

I can hear the critics now: quaint, narrow and entirely beside the present point they say. In some circles, it makes matters even worse that they are described as “the liberal arts”.

The Liberal Arts

Let’s look at the argument against the humanities and liberal arts—because that’s where the thrust of the criticism seems to land.

Let’s examine what these students are learning, how they are learning it, and what happens to them after graduation.

First, what are our liberal arts students learning?

I would argue they are learning skills that will never go out of style – to be analytical, to weigh competing options and to communicate effectively. These are skills that will make them valuable, adaptable employees.

When an English professor sets an essay question on Chaucer, students are asked to mount and defend an argument, to sift through facts and analyze and interpret them. They are being taught to think critically.

This capacity for interpretation, analysis, and critical thought is at the heart of a liberal arts education and fundamental to the humanities.

It is important to individual students, but also to our society. The internet has made information of every kind readily accessible. But we sometimes seem to be drowning in information even as we thirst for knowledge. A mind educated in the arts and humanities has learned how to sift and to sort, to scan and to scope, bringing judgment to bear on undifferentiated information. In short, to help us in understanding what we see and read.

To quote Harvard President Drew Faust:

Human beings need meaning, understanding and perspective as well as jobs. The question should not be whether we can afford to believe in such purposes in these times, but whether we can afford not to.

It may surprise you to know that educators in India and China are turning to universities in Canada for assistance in adding liberal arts and the humanities to their curricula. They’ve built strong technical institutes, to be sure, and universities with world-class curricula in the sciences. But they want graduates who can exercise independent judgement, based not just on the rote learning that they have perfected, but also on critical thinking.

They know what the Indian poet and philosopher Tagore said so well:

A mind that is all logic is like a knife that is all blade: it makes the hand bleed that uses it.

At recent meetings the University of Ottawa had with some of the big banks, we talked about recruitment, assuming that they were primarily interested in graduates from our Bachelor of Commerce program.

But they told us that some of their best people come from the Faculty of Arts. They are looking for employees with basic, adaptable skills: emotional intelligence, good decision making, the ability to work as part of a team and strong written and oral communication skills: the very attributes of our Arts grads. Proof positive of market-based value!

Second, how are our Arts students learning?

Now let’s look at how our students learn.

Teaching methods in Canadian universities have changed. We increasingly use technology to deliver lectures or make learning more interactive. Our students learn to solve problems together, in preparation for the reality of the modern workplace.

There is also growing emphasis across the country, including on our campus and in our Faculty of Arts, on experiential learning: that is, learning through a variety of experiences, including co-op placements, volunteer work related to their courses, internships, mentoring, study abroad programs and participation in our undergraduate research program. In short, today’s students are learning not just in the classroom and in our labs and libraries, but also in the workplace and in the community.

Experiential learning helps our students put their curriculum into context, acquire marketable skills, meet prospective employers, and contribute to the community while they are doing so.

At the University of Ottawa, a growing percentage of our student body is now engaged in experiential learning, and our goal is to make it 100% before long. And this reflects a national trend in universities. In fact, about a half of all Canadian university students across all disciplines complete at least one co-op, practicum, internship or field placement by the time they graduate.

Third, what are our Arts graduates doing with their degrees?

So what happens to arts students after they graduate?

In Ontario, 90 per cent of fine & applied arts students are employed within six months of graduating, according to the most recent figures. The numbers are about the same for other arts and humanities students.

I know what you are thinking — that they are all baristas or offering “fries with that”. But they aren’t. Follow-up studies on uOttawa grads found that 81 per cent of our graduates said their full-time jobs were related to their degrees.

But even those who choose work unrelated to their studies do very well indeed. One of them – Gilles Rivard – will be back on campus tomorrow for an Alumni Week event. He graduated with an MA in geography, but is now Canada’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Daniel Lamarre graduated from our Faculty of Arts and is now COO of Cirque du Soleil.

History graduates build careers in public policy. English majors work in business, management and information technology.

And as for philosophy: its graduates have been known to run financial institutions, lead government departments and manage businesses.

The late Gordon Cheesbrough, the former chief executive of ScotiaMcLeod and a leader on Bay Street, majored in philosophy at the University of Toronto. Business magnate and philanthropist George Soros also studied philosophy as did Dani Reiss, the current CEO of Canada Goose Inc.

Alex Trebek graduated from the University of Ottawa in philosophy and went on to become one of the most successful game-show hosts in history.

Are these mere anecdotes? Or are they compelling examples that invite us to question some of the assumptions we make about fields of study and where they lead.

Helping our students succeed

Despite the very encouraging statistics about employment after graduation, it can often take too long for our graduates to secure a job that is suitable to their talent and training. The recent recession and the natural ebb and flow of the economy take their toll. The expectation that things will improve over time offers little consolation to young people struggling to launch their careers.

Universities are trying to help. Many, including the University of Ottawa, are putting in place entrepreneurship programs. We want to help students in all faculties develop the skills they need to start their own businesses.

But there is more to be done, especially in collaboration with business and industry.

So here is where I ask for your help.

We want to provide even more co-op placements for our undergraduates, more internships for our graduate students, more mentors for our budding entrepreneurs.

These efforts can help companies identify promising recruits, while giving our students the opportunity to build the networks that will lead to that first job.

Let me illustrate how successful the co-op program can be.

Our student Raphaëlle Fluet made quite an impression on those at her co-op placement during her two work terms at L’Estrie Language School in Gatineau. She set up the company’s marketing department, and, by doing so, in essence created a full-time position for herself. She then filled that position and started her full-time job as business development coordinator for the School after she graduated from the University of Ottawa in December.

Ms. Fluet and her employer, Ludo Guerpillion, are here today, along with other co-op students and employers, including the Bank of Canada and the Aga Khan Foundation.

To all our co-op employers, I say a heartfelt thank you for your important contribution.

Let’s build more mutually beneficial relationships that will help you and help our students.

There are other ways we can work with the private sector to mutual advantage. Universities offer a range of research capacity across the disciplines. Canadian universities already do close to $1 billion a year in contract research for the private sector. Our scientists and scholars are ready to work with your company, including the small and medium-sized enterprises, to help develop innovations that can give you the market edge that you seek.

More than job training

I therefore suggest that Canadian universities do indeed offer value for our graduates, including those in the arts and humanities, as well as for Canada as a whole. We are indeed addressing a shortage: the shortage of university graduates across a range of fields that offer rewarding careers and commensurate incomes.

But as I close, I want to emphasize one final point.

A university education also offers rewards that can’t be monetized: it produces citizens able to play a greater part in our democracy; individuals with a discipline of mind, an openness of spirit, and most of all, the ability to learn in a world that is constantly changing.

Of course I acknowledge the vital role we play in meeting the needs of business and contributing to economic growth.

But preparing our students for the job market is only one of our roles.

Let’s never forget that universities are important to society for reasons that can’t be measured on a tax return: they are independent sources of reflective thought. Their unique value to an open society is that they offer safe places for free inquiry, encouraging challenges to the status quo.

We are not simply a farm team for big league business, nor a feeder system for the Fortune 500.

Universities are not, indeed, trade schools, nor mere instruments in someone’s economic tool kit. And when it comes to our students and their future, our concern is as much for the person they will become as it is with the work that they will do.

And if we maintain that focus and produce graduates with the values and the insight to build a stronger society and a better country, we will surely have succeeded in our most important task.

Thank you for hearing me out. I look forward to answering your questions.

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