What the state must learn about higher education - Macleans.ca

What the state must learn about higher education

The core issue in today’s education may be the miasma of sanctity that surrounds the concept, says Colby Cosh

Class dismissed

Photograph by Jessica Darmanin

When you join a national newspaper or magazine as a writer, you start getting a lot more email from three kinds of people: PR folks, the insane and journalism students. Over the past decade I must have had 30 or 40 appeals for help, interviews, or extensive advice from J-schoolers. More famous colleagues must be well into the hundreds. This seems pretty paradoxical, from a labour-market standpoint. Although Maclean’s is a happy exception, the overall enterprise of journalism is shrinking, not growing. At least it is if we’re talking about paid journalism. This goes double for paid print journalism, and triple for paid print general-interest journalism.

If I were to drop dead tomorrow, the column inches I left behind could be filled pretty easily, perhaps by a cat trained to walk across a keyboard. But the journalism students who want to know about my career path and trade secrets are not idlers. They are people who have already invested heavily in training and effort to take my job, or one like it. This is puzzling, not only because I have only the one job for dozens to fight over gladiator-style, but because I never bothered with any of this training myself. Nor did many of the people who haunt, or even boss, big Canadian news institutions.

This cannot help but create an impression of perverted incentives, even mass charlatanry, in the education system. New journalism programs are still being founded all the time at the community college level, as if big cities still had four morning papers apiece and the busy reader had a choice of dozens of weeklies and newsmagazines to suit their political and stylistic affiliations. The sincere journalism student may believe he is the one among dozens who will prosper in a world of cheap commentary and semi-automated newsgathering. Most will probably turn out to have been deluded. Some probably sense this, and are co-operating with an educational institution to put one over on a gullible parent. Others know they are sponging off an equally gullible state that subsidizes delayed entry into the workforce.

The problem involves the collision of many economic, demographic and cultural forces: everything from the information revolution to the senescence of the baby boomers is relevant. But the core issue in today’s education may be the miasma of sanctity that surrounds the concept. “Education” is the bread and wine of the religion of the liberal Enlightenment, to which we all subscribe. We can never have enough education, and there is no problem, personal or social, that cannot be cured by education. What you get when you turn this ideal into a system, however, is a lot like what you get when you transform articles of Christian faith into the Catholic Church: a powerful, unaccountable apparatus that abuses large numbers of young people.

Eventually the state must learn to treat education the way it handles other items of religious faith: that is, require a minimum adherence to custom, and otherwise leave it as a private matter between oneself, one’s family, and one’s God. But what about the labour market’s need for practical job training? Ah, that’s another thing entirely, having nothing inherent to do with “education” in its idealistic or spiritual aspect. And what about the role of the state in creating systems of professional credentials—particularly in fields related closely to other state activity, like criminal and civil law? You will notice that this is a third thing, itself quite distinct from “training” and “education.”

As it stands, we are trying to run an expensive, regimented system that handles demand for three different species of widget. All the widgets are wonderful but they do not necessarily fit together. It’s like trying to make shoes, macaroni and antifreeze in the same factory. Having different words for different concepts is useful, and partitioning schooling into education, job training and credentialing helps us see that the natural role of government in each is different.

Which might be a clue to our problems. Job training is something that should be handled, or at least led, by those who need workers, if only because they know best what kind of worker they need. Credentialing and certifying professional guilds to protect the public might be important, but it ought to be limited lest it become a conspiracy against the public in protection’s name. As for the “educational” business of making wiser people, let that take care of itself.


What the state must learn about higher education

  1. It would be beneficial if companies would return to in house training and give more credence to internship/apprenticeship. Far too many openings are requiring years of experience for entry level positions.

  2. Please don’t say thing like “The state must learn …”. There is no state, just the people and traditions that make it up. Please say “Canadians must learn …”. Or “We …” Only then can we start facing the real challenge — our collective desire for someone else to not just provide, but divine our own needs.

  3. We get two BE-A-PLUMBER articles for March?

    Same old sales pitch though….You can be ‘wise’ without ever bothering with an education.

    I notice you got one though. It’s only other people who should work on the line, or lay bricks or dig ditches. You know….the robot stuff. There isn’t going to be a lot of ‘wisdom’ coming out of that life style.

    A day in a steel mill doesn’t lead to much more philosophical thought than ‘I need a beer’ and an evening spent vegging in front of the TV.

    Yup, I’m obsessive. The 99% need access to the system….people like you try to talk them out of making the effort.

    • I agree with Cosh. Government should be spending our money where it is most needed. We don’t have a philosopher shortage, but there ARE other areas where we could use more trained individuals. f we only have so many tax dollars to go around, doesn’t it make sense to direct that money to assisting people to train in fields where they stand a chance of obtaining gainful employment? Even if that means training those plumbers you find so loathsome? Once gainfully employed, there’s nothing to prevent that plumber from studying philosophy in her spare time, on her own dime.

      • Of course you do. [rolls eyes]

        We are a very wealthy country, whether you count oil or not….and instead of moving ourselves forward into the knowledge economy you want to keep everybody on the lowest levels in order to save a dime.

        It’s cheap and short-sighted.

        • I didn’t say only fund trades. We don’t have to fund education equally; we can put the majority of our incentives first to those areas where there is demonstrated need. E.g.: If we have a glut of teachers and a shortage of nurses, then we subsidize more slots for nurses and fewer for teachers. Those who really want to be teachers either fight harder for the available funded slots, or find an alternate way.

          Your way would require either a substantial increase in taxation or an even deeper deficit (which will eventually lead to higher taxation). And would guarantee continued high levels of youth unemployment.

          • Not very libertarian of you…..strikes me as state intervention….not to mention Soviet!

            ‘We don’t care that you love engineering, comrade…we have lots of engineers….what we need are nurses!’

            Ya know….if Canada can afford multi-multi billion dollar F-35s…..we can afford universal education.

          • Why shouldn’t employer (as opposed to student) supply and demand have an impact on where we spend our educational dollars? Are you saying education has no relation to employment or the economy? Because I’m sure you have said just the opposite many times… as long as we are talking solely about university education. (Somehow, other forms of education are too “lunchbucket” for you.)

            Supply the market demand with skilled workers and the unemployment rates drop and personal wealth increases. Once that happens and we are back to having healthy government coffers then we can afford to fund other educational initiatives that are more esoteric and to your liking. But a government’s first objective should be to get us the biggest bang for our buck (F-35 purchase notably an abject failure in this regard).

          • A couple of other note on this:

            1) when have I ever claimed to be libertarian? Society comes with responsibilities as well as rights.

            2) What’s the point of funding someone to get e.g. an engineering degree if there are no engineering jobs (to use your example)? Soviet central planning was good at providing lots of unneeded goods while there were shortages elsewhere – so your approach sounds at least as Soviet as mine.

            Bye for now comrade!

          • Colby Cosh is a Libertarian, and you agreed with him.

            There are engineering jobs all over the world….so if you want to be an engineer, be one.

          • There are engineering schools all over the world too. Go study at one.

          • Which has nothing to do with anything at all.

          • Sure it does. Why would we want to send our tax money training people for export when we have unmet local needs? If there aren’t any openings at our schools, they can study elsewhere – just as if there are no jobs they can work elsewhere. Applying your own solution to the problem at hand.

          • Ah yes, there’s that nickel you’re scared of losing again.

            Canadians aren’t being barred from university, so stop worrying.

        • BTW – I work in the “knowledge economy”. The wages aren’t what you seem to think they are (though I sure wish they were).

          • No, you don’t. So you have no idea.

            And I don’t play ‘Circles’….so Ciao

          • I work for the largest legal, tax and HR compliance information company in Canada, producing print and electronic books, research tools and work solutions for said groups. Our parent company employs some 60,000 people globally in information industries; we keep Canada’s richest family that way.

            So if I don’t work in the knowledge economy, I’d sure as hell love to know your definition – because it must be pretty whacked.

          • Well, that’s nice, But it’s not the knowledge economy.

            Service economy, yes.

          • At this point, I think it’s incumbent on you to define what you consider as the knowledge economy. It’s annoying to debate somebody who never defines a position. For example, analytical labs employ a lot of chemists occupied in scientific work, but aren’t known to pay well. Are you going to call that “service economy” or “knowledge economy?” How about an engineering consulting firm providing engineering services for construction? Or how about IBM’s lucrative business consulting arm?

    • Unfortunately the truth is hard to stomach. There is no obligation for any institution to find the 99% access to the system or market; at least when operating in a capitalist system. Today’s youth believe that they are entitled to endless free education not realizing how unsustainable it is for every member of society to study niche liberal/fine arts subject matter. I don’t understand how graduates are shocked when they look at the OSAP balance after 4 years. Higher learning, and education in general is an amazing experience which is absolutely life altering, but the reality is middle-class Westerners don’t have the luxury to study such a broad range of liberal arts. Governments around the world are to blame, selling the middle class just that idea (any many others) in exchange for political power. Emphasis is put on self-enlightenment and fulfilment rather than market integration. Obviously i recognize that not all people study the liberal arts, or even attend university, however there is undoubtably a lack of foresight with today’s students. There must be a shift in mentality where we understand that not all skills are as easily transfered to the market as others, and when we encounter difficulty it’s not the government’s fault.

      • Pardon me?

        There is no obligation for the govt to do ANYthing. Unless they want votes that is.

        I notice nobody mentions sustainability about our military. Education OTOH….contributes to a country and raises the GDP

        It’s amazing how everyone else on earth will give their eyeteeth for an education, and govts will fund it…..but for ‘westerners’ it’s a luxury we can’t afford

        If the richest most advanced nations on earth can’t ‘afford’ education….what does that say about our system and our beliefs?

        It means we’re crashing.

        The govt is there to solve problems, not whine and make excuses.

  4. It certainly seems as though some contemplation is in order here concerning History degrees from provincial universities, where they fit on the wisdom/training scale, whether or not they’re youthful mistakes or inspired life preparation, and who ought to pay for them.

    • Touche! I hope Cosh responds to this . . .

  5. In all fairness, I recall that it seemed like most 1st year Arts students identified themselves as “pre-Law” students. That implies they at least had some plans for professional training following their humanities education. Of course, a similar number of 1st year sciences students also identified themselves as “pre-Med” or “pre-Vet” – they simply ended up with a somewhat more marketable degree when their ambitions yielded to reality.

    As far as job training, I think business is not the most forward-thinking group in terms of investing in new employees. In the era of a flexible and mobile work force, I can’t see businesses investing in significant fundamental training of new hires. It’s too expensive and time-consuming. Government could provide incentive for certain aspects: for example, funding for co-op student work terms or apprenticeships. That’s sufficient to change the cost:benefit ratio of those activities to favour increased business participation. Don’t bank on much altruism, though.

  6. True enough. In a world fond of WikiTruths (penned by nobodies hiding behind nicknames) who needs ‘journalists’? It’s a dying profession.
    The article is correct to question the proliferation of ‘journalism’ and other outmoded professional schools. However, general postsecondary education, taken seriously, is a benefit to all students; it should teach them how to read critically and never go anywhere near WikiTruths.

  7. Those who consume a product (news) relentlessly (smartphone) are confusing the consumption with production.

  8. It’s not just education… Our entire economic system has degenerated to the point where about 20% of workers are true wealth-creator and 80% parasites holding jobs that have no genuine demand. But there’s hope since the whole system is likely going to collapse under it’s own weight. Mere ‘reform’ isn’t going to do shit since the entire system is flawed (like a giant ponzi scheme)… We need a full-on systematic RESET; after the crash, we can rebuild from scratch.