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Margin Notes

All is revealed: the real crisis on campus

Universities are failing our students, and the economy, says the Walrus magazine.


Last week in this blog I speculated about which crisis in higher education the Walrus magazine would be covering in its October 2012 issue. The “crisis on campus” theme has been gaining popularity lately in the Canadian media (more so in the U.S.). But, interestingly, each article seems to address a different crisis.

The crisis cover story in the Sept. 10 issue of Maclean’s, titled “The broken generation,” is about student mental health – or, as the magazine put it, the “shocking number of Canadian students [who] feel depressed, even suicidal.” Its sister publication in Quebec, L’actualité, ran an article in its Sept. 1 edition claiming that universities’ underfunded pension obligations is the true crisis facing campuses.

As for the Walrus, the October issue is not out on the newsstands until next Monday (Sept. 10), so it seemed I’d have to wait until then to find out. However, in my mailbox this past Friday, lo and behold, was my October issue freshly arrived. So what, according to the Walrus, is the campus crisis du jour? The cover blares: “Today’s University Graduate: Unemployed, Unhappy and Drowning in Debt,” although that’s not quite the story’s main theme. The inside headline, “The Uses and Abuses of University,” doesn’t clarify things much. What the story is mainly about is the mismatch – as the authors see it – between what students are learning and what the economy needs (one of the story possibilities I raised).

The authors of the piece are Ken Coates, a history professor who was dean of arts at University of Waterloo and who now holds the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan; and Bill Morrison, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Northern British Columbia. The two have worked together before, co-authoring the 2011 book Campus Confidential: 100 startling things you don’t know about Canadian universities. I wrote about that book, which covers some of the same themes, in a past blog post.

The Walrus article states that there is a new class of university graduates today “whose education is poorly matched with the national economy.” This “misalignment of education and employment,” the authors claim, is leading to “an emerging employment crisis” that will produce a “lost generation of university graduates.” Until universities accept the fact that they are “chiefly job training institutions … the disconnect between the academy and the world of work will continue to grow, and so will public dissatisfaction.”

I’m sure Messieurs Coates and Morrison are serious, thoughtful individuals who believe in what they write, but I find their arguments unconvincing and some of their wording hyperbolic.

According to Statistics Canada, between 2008 and 2011 – a time of great economic uncertainty – employment had risen the fastest, in percentage terms, for people who had a bachelor’s degree or higher. Looking at StatsCan’s Labour Force Survey, Herb O’Heron, director of research and policy analysis at the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, noted that, in May 2012, there were 613,000 more jobs for university graduates than there were in May 2008 at the outset of the recession – a 15-percent increase. By this July, the number of new jobs for university graduates, measured since July 2008, was 700,000. This compares to 320,000 for college grads and a net loss of 640,000 jobs for those without postsecondary education.

Ah, but these university graduates are underemployed, counter Messieurs Coates and Morrison. “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.”

It is no doubt true that some recent graduates are struggling to launch their careers. But, in the long term, university graduates do generally find good, well-paying jobs. According to 2006 Census data, a bachelor’s of history graduate can expect to earn on average more than $61,000 a year during his or her career. For all bachelor’s holders, it’s $68,600. This compares to an average of roughly $40,500 for someone with a trades certificate or diploma, and $50,700 for someone with a registered apprenticeship certificate. Yes, individual results will vary.

It’s not clear to me what the authors are proposing that universities do differently. They seem to want more students to go into fields like information technology, applied sciences, engineering and other professions. That’s a good idea, and indeed universities have generally been expanding spaces in these fields for years (although enrolment levels in medicine are tightly controlled). On the other hand, Messieurs Coates and Morrison seem to suggest that there are too many students in more general programs like the humanities and basic sciences that the market simply doesn’t need.

There are certainly occasional shortages of workers with specialized technical skills in Canada, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the role of universities to fill that void. Shouldn’t industry take some responsibility in training the workers they need for specific niche areas? What’s more, it’s very difficult for universities, or anyone else, to be able to predict with any certainty what the specific job needs of the economy will be five or 10 years down the line.

What universities ideally can offer is the skills and abilities that graduates will be able to draw on throughout their lives: to imagine and be creative; to communicate well; to gather, analyze and synthesize information; to manage time and resources; to work in teams; to problem solve, and so on. Universities have also been expanding experiential learning opportunities like co-op, internships and work placements that give students an early exposure to the working world.

I will concede that young adults do seem to face a more difficult employment situation today than the previous generation did in their day. With globalization, shifting markets and financial uncertainty, the nature of work and the economy itself seem to be getting more precarious. In that context, I’d much rather have my bachelor’s degree than not have one.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Graeme / September 5, 2012 at 10:46

    Great article!

    It’s immoral for Canadian universities to qualify far too many people in certain fields. Most other countries have controls so that the job market doesn’t get flooded by people in one sector. It seems they only care about tuition money and forget that students are paying customers who are ostensibly guaranteed a job after graduation.

  2. K. Faucher / September 5, 2012 at 11:31

    @Graeme: I’m not sure what morality has anything to do with the issue (perhaps you could clarify?). If you read Leo’s blog post, he raises the vital point that there is no way of predicting the labour market’s needs so many years in advance. One might also raise issue with your formulation that students=customers. A student is not buying a hot dog, but receiving an education. The value of education is more intrinsic than it is extrinsic. Universities are not for job training as such (there are alternative methods for receiving vocational training). Also, who are the “they” you are accusing of only caring about tuition money? Administrators? Staff? Faculty? A university is a fairly diverse and complex institution and so to level this accusation across the board seems a bit of a generalization, no?

  3. Dr Herbert Pimlott / September 5, 2012 at 13:13

    I appreciate your intelligent response that recognizes the complexity of this particular issue. Unfortunately, it sounds like the authors (in their article at least and perhaps their book as well) are part of a broader attempt to criticize universities (and faculty no doubt) for the simple, but completely overlooked fact that it is the “private sector” in particular or “the economy” in general that have NOT been providing the “knowledge economy” JOBS for the “information society” in which we are supposed to be living.

    Indeed, Mark Carney recently criticized Corporate Canada for sitting on half-a-trillion dollars in cash rather than investing it.

    The attempt to make professors the scapegoats for an economy that is going “down the tubes” — or that is at least stagnant (except for Alberta tarsands perhaps) — is part-and-parcel of the broader attack on all kinds of workers (whether white-, pink- or blue-collar), but especially unionized and public-sector employees, for the problems in the economic system.

    Interestingly, corporate media pundits appear to have already forgotten (or overlooked) this simple fact: the financial crisis is not one made by the public sector, least of all by the universities, but actually created and exacerbated by both various financial institutions (and these activities were also promoted by corporate media) and the government (so-called) “regulators”.

    Indeed, given the penchant of the Conservative government in Ottawa for getting rid of those who are scientists and other highly educated, knowledge workers in federal public agencies, it would appear that the Canadian government is no longer interested in the “knowledge economy”, so much as the “mis/information society”, as it happily hires scores (maybe hundreds?) of “communication” specialists for the PMO.

  4. Benny Quay / September 6, 2012 at 09:11

    Alcohol was rife when I was an undergrad almost 40 years ago. The big difference is simply this: our students are mostly fat and lazy. Lack of exercise is the culprit.

    When one exercises, one connects with people. Mental health will creep on you if you live in your own House of usher.

  5. Jill Scott / September 7, 2012 at 15:58

    Couldn’t agree more with this.

    Learning2Learn is the key to becoming a high-level knowledge worker for the global economy.

    If we teach to develop curiosity, creativity, communication, complex thought skills, our graduates may start off in positions that do not resemble a “dream job,” but they will rise more quickly and contribute more over the long run because of their education.

    Most important message for graduates: YOU will become the leaders in the knowledge economy – to the extent that you see yourselves this way.

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