Academic drift in reverse

Universities should be considered unfit to meet the demands of the market


The “underemployment” of university graduates has become something of a scandal. Statistics Canada routinely informs us that a growing number of graduates are working in jobs they feel overqualified for. University students are frequently scolded for not studying subjects that give one “skills” that are “in demand.”

This reality — that until recently has been all but ignored in the fluffy discourse in Canadian higher education — has begun to permeate public discussions about “what’s wrong with university.” The most pointed criticism has come from sociologists James Cote and Anton Allahar with their fine book, Ivory Tower Blues.

Cote and Allahar detail, among other things, how reams of mostly unprepared high school graduates are shuffled into university with the promise of a challenging and interesting career, only to be disappointed in a job market characterized by credentialism.

While demand for graduates from programs such as engineering and the medical sciences remains strong, the supply of university graduates far exceeds the demand for people with such credentials. Many graduates are working in jobs that either don’t require a degree or in jobs that as little as 10 or 15 years ago only required high school.

The response from administrators has often been to further marketize the university. For example, Ken Coates dean of arts at the University of Waterloo co-authored a column that appeared recently in the Globe and Mail complaining that “there has been no co-ordinated effort to match university output with market needs.”

According to Coates, universities should expend greater resources to cater to students who lack the intellectual curiosity, and capability (even by our diminished standards) for a university education, by offering programs that “focus on workplace preparation and career skills.”

Academic drift typically occurs when community colleges and vocational schools creep into areas normally reserved for universities. What Coates appears to be advocating or legitimizing, with his vision of the university as being everything to everyone, is for this process to go in reverse. Though, I am sure he doesn’t see it that way.

What distinguishes (or what use to distinguish?) a university from other educational institutions is that students are (were?) expected to engage with a defined field of study unencumbered by other considerations.

What exactly permits this or that subject area to be considered university level is only that a sufficient body of scholarship has been developed, permitting the area to be a recognized field of the academy. Such development takes time, and students and professors alike engage in a sort of conversation with the material, its unchallenged truths, its controversies and when pertinent, its relevance.

It is quite true that universities have always prepared people for the working world, most notably in the areas of law and medicine. But, even such evidently relevant areas, are obviously themselves fields of academic study.

Even if you removed their relevance, contributing to the fields of medicine and law would still be justified in its own terms, that is, in advancing the conversation of a particular field. What’s more, graduates of professional programs are often expected to complete an apprenticeship (such as articling for prospective lawyers, or residency for doctors) outside the university.

To argue that universities should react to the needs of the market might seem a very natural response to resolve the disappointment many feel, but it is wholly incoherent. When fields of study, of which computer science appears to be the best example, overemphasize marketable skills, a trade off is required between the instrumentality of an education and the advancement of knowledge.

And given that markets change, requiring an ever changing and increasing set of skills, such a trade off may not only poison the type of education that distinguishes universities, it might in the end be entirely futile.

Most fields of study only prepare students for the workforce indirectly. When studying a discipline, certain skills are developed in the learning process, be they improved literacy and numeracy, or the ability to evaluate complex ideas, but such skills should not be the ends of a university education, only the means by which one succeeds. They are byproducts that may or may not be useful to the job market.

If universities are not meeting our economic expectations it is not because they are “failing” but because we expect too much from them. The idealized image of the university, of which I am advocating, has not completely withered. Though, it has always been under threat as governments have always sought to use universities for advancing social goals, be it, as in the past, the cultivation of a sense of patriotism or the training of a cultural elite, or as in today, in preparation for the “new economy.”

Unfortunately, the ivory tower is addicted to public money. Public money that is contingent on sacrificing intellectual curiosity in favour of the needs of the market, something that universities, should be unfit for. We could blame politicians, or we could blame the forces of globalization. However, the responsibility ultimately rests with those charged with guiding our universities. For if a dean of arts at a major institution like Ken Coates will not stand up for the university as primarily a place of inquiry, who will?

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Academic drift in reverse

  1. Very well said.

  2. Generally pretty good, but I qould quibble with the following:

    Quote: Many graduates are working in jobs that either don’t require a degree or in jobs that as little as 10 or 15 years ago only required high school.

    This exactly how a labour force gets upskilled. If jobs that “used to require only high school” never increased their skill requirement, that might reflect a lack of innovation in the economy, no? Rising skill requirements aren’t *simply* credentialism; they also reflect the effects of rising innovation and productivity.

    If there were genuinely a mass of underemployed graduates, you would expect the starting salaries of graduates to be falling, as these graduates bid down the price of labour. Flat out, this isn’t happening. Average starting salaries are more or less where they were 10 and 20 years ago, adjusting for inflation.

  3. Yeah, on what Alex is saying, I’ll just add one thought. Behind Carson’s article there seems to be the assumption (and I’ll invite him to clarify if I’m wrong) that a sufficiently educated workforce should create a skilled job market. So if that isn’t happening, it’s evidence that the education offered by Canadian post-secondary institutions is lacking somehow. If that is Carson’s assumption he’s in good company. It’s not an all an unreasonable claim. But I do wonder about it sometimes.

    Consider the other possibility. That at some point, you can only move so much of your population into skilled, educated jobs, at least until something radical changes in the employment market. No matter how many students graduate from university, we still have a very large service sector in Canada. Someone is working in it, obviously, and someone will always have to. Whether we define a franchise manager position as requiring a university degree or not, it doesn’t change the number of franchise manager jobs out there.

    If college and university grads were getting leapfrogged in their chosen careers by less-educated peers now that would be very strong evidence that the education itself is lacking. But I’ve never seen any statistic to suggest that. Instead, there’s just this lingering problem that we keep turning out more and more graduates from post-secondary education, and we wonder why the labour market doesn’t spontaneously change to accommodate this different class of graduates. Well, was that expectation ever realistic in the first place?

    Please bear in mind, I’m not against educating more people, and I strongly believe in the non-economic returns (or more abstract economic returns – health, satisfaction, community participation, etc.) of higher education. But if we insist on evaluating the performance of post-secondary education only in terms of market returns, we’re going to encounter this problem. At some point, you just can’t create a more skilled job market by turning out more university grads. Therefore, it’s inevitable that some of them will end up working at jobs that don’t require their university education.

  4. Instead of wiping out the interest on student loans, an incentive to pay back the debt could be as follows: on the anniversary of a student’s consolidation of their loans, forgive the interest paid during that year. Students could make their loans “interest-free” and the more interest they pay each year, the more their rebate. From the public purse point of view, there would an element of savings when students do not claim interest paid on student loans as a tax deduction. From the student’s point of view, getting refunded the total amount of interest is worth much more than a tax deduction.

  5. Is the government seriously profiting from students attending non-profit institutions?

    As a working graduate from a private undergraduate university pursuing the arts, Canada’s heavy interest rate on loan repayment is seriously deterring me from pursuing post-graduate education/training. I suppose I could ideally pay off my debt in 9.5 years if my loan amount didn’t double with significant interest. As it stands, it would take half a lifetime to be rid of student debt– I know I am far from being alone.

    Jeannette Lodewyks’ suggestion should be considered. Having an incentive to pay off debt early without interest is also a great improvement to our currently failing system. Consolidating provincial loans and national loans if possible, should also be done.

  6. Usher is merely repeating the mantra of human capital theory. Let’s see the actual empirical evidence for his claims on a job-by-job basis among those university graduates who report on surveys that they are underemployed. While he’s at it, let’s see the evidence that disengaged students actually develop marketable skills as they drift through university.

  7. Jeff: Regarding your “leap frogging” comment: There is a literature on this, but it deals with university grads “leap frogging” over high school and college grads, by taking their jobs. Try Marc Frenette “Overqualified? Recent graduates and the needs of their employers” Education Quarterly Review, 2000, Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 6-20.

  8. James, Usher’s claims are about the general population. Demanding empirical evidence of his claims based on the subset of that population that most likely matches your thesis is not only of little value, but dishonest.

    A more interesting question to me would be “Of those who feel underemployed, how do their salaries compare with those who do not feel underemployed” Or in other words, how many of these students are actually under-employed, and how many were just expecting a rose garden when they graduated?

    Given that university graduates are leap-frogging into high school and college graduate jobs, and that the general wages for university graduates hasn’t gone down, this implies either that those lower end jobs have bosses that for some reason are willing to pay more for skills they don’t need, that the demands of those jobs have increased (as Usher suggests) or that the wages of the “non-leapfrogged” jobs have been increasing dramatically to make up for the lower wages leapfroggers are finding.

  9. James: Agree with you entirely, and that’s an interesting trend to look at also. But my point here is that the forces at work have a lot more to do with pressure on the job market, and not with the job-getting or job-performing value of higher education. I don’t consider university grads taking what would have been high school jobs, not long ago, to be “leapfrogging” exactly – in that they were “ahead” of high school grads in the first place. I don’t have a term for it yet. Maybe “outbidding,” in that the educational credential is in many senses what the grad is offering for sale on the market.

    Thwim: Without taking a position on your suggestions, exactly (I think they’re interesting suggestions) I think you’re missing the background basis of this debate. The whole “underemployment” debate isn’t primarily about a graduate’s income or even about the individual graduate at all. It’s about the idea that there’s this productive employee on the market who should be doing X job (and driving the economy accordingly) and instead ends up underemployed at Y job. Sort of like running a power generator at half capacity. There’s a wastefulness about that which many people think is a problem of itself. As an example, a university grad may earn good money tending bar (cash tips rock) but it seems like there’s something wrong if that becomes a trend, notwithstanding individual income.

    Generally, I think it’s dangerous to assume that universities only need to retool and offer something more practical. As though if we turn out thousands of extra computer engineers, in place of thousands of sociology majors, the market will somehow respond to this and they’ll all find jobs. The problem is with viewing education as a job-creation engine in the first place. Education can respond to the employment market, certainly, and we can all have a fascinating debate about how much or how little universities should do that. But I don’t believe that the market can be made to respond to education in the same way. It can have some effect, I’m sure, but it can’t create jobs merely by producing graduates. And that’s a bizarre misconception we need to explode as soon as possible, so we can get down to realistic solutions.

  10. Thwin: There is nothing dishonest about differentiating between main (population) effects and interaction (subgroup) effects. Doing so is a fundamental statistical procedure and is commonly used to move beyond simplistic generalizations. And, underemployed graduates do make less than fully employed graduates. Check the literature (e.g., Pryor & Shaffer, 1999, Who’s Not Working and Why, Cambridge University Press).

  11. Jeff: I was using your “leap frogging” metaphor, but as you know from our book, we call it the “downward cascading effect” (also known as the labour queue, or displacement or bumping effect). I agree entirely about how misguided the attempt to turn universities into job-training factories is. And, by the way, for all those thinking that offering courses in the new technologies will solve enrollment problems, there has been a North America-wide collapse in enrollment in university-level computer science courses.

  12. I think part of the problem here is that between all the rhetoric and all the faceless numbers that get tossed around, there is a tendency to treat all university degrees similarly. That is simply not the case.

    The fact remains that while studying engineering, law, medicine or other professional fields is an investment, studying (the vast majority of) the arts remains a luxury. Students with an interest in fields such as history and classics (or in my case, philosophy) are certainly welcome to study them, but they have to come to terms with the fact that the degree they earn is going to do little to help them break out of unskilled labour, let alone ‘make it big’ in the business world.

    Certainly these non-professional degrees serve as some kind of ‘credentialism’ to the white-collar work world. As Carson points out, valuable, employable skills are still gained, albeit indirectly. But let me ask who is better qualified for the role of an office administrator, a classics major? Someone trained in office administration from a college? Or perhaps someone who has earned 3 to 4 (to 5 to 6) years of experience after high school, working in an office? If it is qualification and credentials and employability you are after, there is a better way to spend those 3 to 4 (to 5 to 6) years than obtaining a degree.

  13. Travis: You make a potentially good point, but the problem with your claims is that you’re weighing in with a perspective about what university degrees should and should not be, rather than what university degrees are and are not. Regardless of the sensibility of the arrangement, the fact is that generic, white-collar jobs do go to the university grad rather than the college diploma or the high-school grad with experience. We can argue endlessly over why that happens and whether or not it’s “right” in some abstract sense, but in the end we’re left with the reality that it does happen.

    I don’t want to turn into another author grinding my thesis here, but once you accept that university degrees (even in the non-professional areas you cite) are treated as the entry-level credential for white-collar employment in many fields, you have to accept that (a) students will seek the degree for that reason and (b) universities will tacitly structure around this motive. Good, bad, right, wrong … that’s all a side discussion you’re welcome to engage in if you like. But you can’t dismiss this motive as a factor simply because you think it’s inappropriate.

    This goes to the most central question I’ve ever managed to ask, which is simply “what’s the right reason to be in university?” And the only valid answer I’ve ever found is to honour each motive in turn. It’s obvious you have a personal answer about the right reason to study philosophy, and a perfectly good one for you, but I think it’s a mistake (very common, yet very damaging) to assume the next student’s motive, if different, must be wrong by extension.

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