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Margin Notes

Skills debate: Why can’t we all get along?

If universities and colleges are pitted against each other, we all lose.


Prior to the unveiling of the federal budget last Thursday, there was lots of talk about a “skills mismatch” in Canada which had some within the university community concerned. That’s because at least some of the reporting contained blithe assertions like, “there are too many kids getting BAs and not enough welders,” or hoary clichés about “all those bartenders and baristas with expensive university degrees.”

In the end, the skills provisions in the 2013 budget likely will have little practical impact, positive or negative, on universities. The budget’s signature new Canada Jobs Grant program to help train or retrain Canadians for “labour market demands” is meant to be of short duration and is aimed at community colleges, career colleges and trade union training centres. There is some doubt about whether such a program will have the desired effect or is needed, but that’s a different matter.

In the run-up to the budget, Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates had a couple of excellent posts on his “One Thought to Start Your Day” blog questioning some of the assertions around the “skills shortages” debate (see the posts here and here – they’re well worth a read). “Much of the talk about skills shortages in Canada is data-free, and factually challenged,” he asserts.

The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada quickly jumped into the fray to address some of that lack of data with a document entitled “Canada’s skills gap: 11 quick facts.” Among the facts it cites: According to a recent CIBC report, most jobs in high demand in Canada require a university degree; and between July 2008 and July 2012, 700,000 net new jobs were created for university graduates, compared to 320,000 net new jobs for college and trades graduates.

Earlier, in a speech to the Empire Club of Canada on March 7, University of Toronto’s outgoing president, David Naylor, also addressed the issue of whether universities “ought to produce more job-ready, skills-focused graduates.” He added facetiously, “Stop all this liberal arts guff and this social science silliness. What Canada needs to compete and win in the world economy are more folks with college diplomas, and universities that focus on preparing people for careers – for the real world.”

His response: Canada is already the world leader in college-level attainment, but ranks only 18th among OECD countries in university (baccalaureate-level) graduation rates. “If Canada’s competitiveness problems were going to be solved by colleges and polytechnics, or by universities that behave like them, we’d already be rolling in tax revenues,” he concluded.

James Knight, president of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges, was asked about the skills gap in a Q&A interview in the Globe and Mail. One of the questions posed was: “We’ve seen data earlier this month from Statistics Canada that a B.A. holder still earns 41 percent more than a high-school graduate while college graduates earn 22 percent less than B.As. I wonder about the wisdom of encouraging high-school students to think about college rather than focus on university?”

His response was that “StatsCan data is hokum.” He proceeded to cite his own study (n=1) of his son’s experience. “My son went to Carleton [University] and got a degree in economics that had no value in the job market whatsoever. After a year of wandering around, he went to George Brown College for Sports and Event Management and the moment he graduated he was picked up by the Ontario Cycling Association” and now works for the national cycling organization.

I am happy for his son, but anecdote is not evidence.

Mr. Knight also might have added a bit of detail about the college program he cites. I can’t find a program called “Sports and Event Management” at George Brown, so I’ll assume he was referring to the “Sports and Event Marketing” program, which George Brown does offer. This is what the college calls a “postgraduate” program, which is in fact marketed, in part, to undergraduate degree holders and requires a degree or college diploma for admittance. And, while I will accept Mr. Knight’s assertion that it was the postgraduate college certificate which landed his son his job, might it not have been the combination of the degree and the certificate?

U of T’s Dr. Naylor in his speech to the Empire Club seemed to anticipate this line of argument: “What we aren’t doing,” he said, “is celebrating the fact that tens of thousands of university students who have finished a baccalaureate go on to get a college diploma or certificate. That’s seen somehow as a mistake. … Why shouldn’t a young person get a liberal arts education, learn to think better, acquire some breadth of competencies and general knowledge, be challenged intellectually by professors and peers – and then go on to get specific vocational skills?”

My point is not to pick a fight with Mr. Knight – in fact, quite the opposite. I think if colleges and universities are pitted against each other, the whole postsecondary educational sector, and the country, loses.

I’ll give the last word to Graham Carr, from his presidential speech (PDF) to the annual general meeting of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences on March 23: “For me, the debate should never be of universities vs. colleges but of the PSE sector working together more effectively to provide real educational choices in all their complexity that foster a spirit of inquiry, imagination, discovery and collaboration.”

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Jim Woodgett / March 26, 2013 at 14:48

    The problem is more complicated (aside from the clear conflict of interest in speaking about the benefits of university over college in a university-focused publication). There are multiple agendas at play including those of the institutions, the ever changing job market, challenging demographics and government policies. In the ideal world of some, our educational institutions would automatically output people with the right knowledge for them to perform in their chosen employment. But education should be far more than a sausage machine. It should be about helping people realise their full potential. Applying additional expectations, especially in the short term, dilutes and distorts this primary function. Let’s judge the value of education not by the perceived salary differential but by the quality of life enabled.

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