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Margin Notes

The CIBC report and higher-education reporting

It’s a complicated world out there beyond the headlines.


The report released last week by CIBC World Markets on the returns of a postsecondary education in Canada continues to make headlines – and, I think, is an interesting object lesson on the perils of higher-education reporting.

The report’s release was well-timed for maximum publicity, falling on the eve of students returning to college and university. It also fits the narrative that seems to be increasingly current in the Canadian media that the value of a degree in fields such as the humanities and social sciences is declining, as epitomized by columnists such as the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente (a good example is a piece she wrote last year, entitled “Educated for unemployment”).

In a nutshell, the recent CIBC report said that the “premium” of a degree, in terms of earnings and employment, is dropping as “too few students are graduating from programs that are in high demand” by the labour market, and that Canada “is experiencing an excess supply of postsecondary graduates.” Both assertions are incorrect, or at least misleading.

Cue the credulous headlines: “The value of education is dropping fast for university graduates,” reported the Financial Post; “Students, students everywhere – but few with a degree employers need,” said trade publication Canadian HR Reporter; “Too many students fail to enrol in job-linked programs,” claimed the Halifax Herald on a Canadian Press story; and “Arts degree? You’ll earn less than a high school grad,” according to the Province newspaper.

There was also a truly bizarre response in the Globe and Mail that we should return to the Dark Ages where “a privileged few fret about the problems of philosophy” while the rest of us can live in blissful ignorance. I kid you not. I assumed it was clever satire, but others pointed out that it wasn’t.

Not surprisingly, defenders of the value of a postsecondary education pushed back. The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada released a primer “clarifying the numbers” and “setting the context” for the CIBC report. Jean-Marc Mangin, executive director of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, chimed in with a blog post, “Liberal arts education: good for your mind and your wallet.” That was followed by an op-ed in yesterday’s Globe and Mail, entitled “Universities should educate – employers should train,” by Max Blouw, president of Wilfrid Laurier University and chair of the Council of Ontario Universities. Dr. Blouw’s piece did not specifically reference the CIBC report, but made a related point that “universities must provide the kind of broad intellectual and personal development that enables graduates to thrive in a world that is constantly changing.” (I also responded last week, here.)

Then the pièce de résistance, a “One Thought to Start Your Day” blog post by Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates, who skewered the CIBC report for its mistakes in fact and lack of critical thinking. At a brief 425 words, Usher’s post is the most direct response to the report and is well worth a read. His main points:

1) The returns to Bachelor’s degrees are not declining; they are, in fact, growing at a slightly slower rate than at other levels of education, which isn’t the same thing.  2) The gap between college and university graduates is closing, but it’s because college grads are doing better, not because university grads are doing worse.  3) Yes, the difference in unemployment rates between university and high school graduates is, as the report says, only about 1.5 percentage points (which is down considerably over the last decade or so).  But why emphasize that fact when the gap in employment rates – which are presumably much more important, and yet were unmentioned by the report – remains over 12 percentage points?  There’s too much cherry-picking of data here for my taste.

Now, some could argue that these responses to the CIBC report (and the media coverage of it) are nothing more than the work of self-interested individuals defending their turf. Yes, many of these individuals do have interests to defend, but my question is why weren’t journalists seeking out these other voices to offer a different perspective and much needed balance? While I don’t want to suggest the authors of the CIBC report had their own particular agenda – they did make other relevant and important observations in the report – I think they did approach it from a particular point of view that needed to be questioned (much the same way the Conference Board of Canada or the Canadian Chamber of Commerce approach the issue of the supposed skills gap in this country, which is also often parroted too credulously by the media).

The assumptions in the CIBC report seem to be that the main role of universities is to train individuals for jobs and employers somehow get a pass. Is this what we want? And, that we can predict with some precision what the labour market needs will be in the future. Is there any good evidence to support that?

Journalists love a story when it goes against conventional thinking, and “university no longer pays” or “kids aren’t studying the right things to get the right jobs” are great examples of this. They also play into a certain anti-intellectual bias which says far too many young people are needlessly pursuing a useless university education (the “B.A.rista generation”) and that these entitled kids are finally getting their comeuppance. But it is a lazy caricature and needs to be countered. As usual, the truth is far more nuanced and complicated.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Wendy / September 4, 2013 at 17:34

    Universities educate, employers train!