Get me a job—or give me my money back

Should schools be in the business of turning out employable grads?

Carlie Deneiko is from the tiny town of Watrous, Sask. (population 1,800), more than an hour’s drive southeast of Saskatoon. As a teen, she dreamed of travelling the world, but her priorities are shifting. “I’ve got a boyfriend, and I’m really settled,” says Deneiko, 20, a student in the faculty of education at the University of Regina. “It’s becoming more important to me to get a job.”

Deneiko’s not too worried: her education comes with a job guarantee. She’s one of 355 students enrolled in a new program at the University of Regina that promises students they’ll land a job—in their chosen field—within six months of graduation. If they don’t, the university gives them another year of tuition for free. The UR Guarantee has other bells and whistles (like internships and work programs), but for Deneiko, it’s that extra year of free tuition that pulled her in. “If I don’t get a job, I’m coming back to get my special education certificate,” she says.

Since it launched in September, the UR Guarantee has been incredibly popular. Enrolment in the program, which is open to all first-year students, has already jumped by 24 per cent, says president Vianne Timmons. “We looked at students’ motivation for attending university,” she says, “and realized they’re looking at a degree primarily as a launching pad for a career.”

Universities have long been seen as ivory towers, leaving job training to colleges and vocational programs, but that’s changing fast. “It’s not the old, green college on the hill anymore,” says Lloyd Axworthy, president of the University of Winnipeg. “The marketplace has changed,” adds Ronald Bordessa, president of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT). “Some universities have moved quickly. Others haven’t, and are having greater difficulty attracting students.”

Regina isn’t the only university in the job guarantee business—tiny Sainte-Anne in Church Point, N.S., offers its education and business graduates free tuition if they haven’t found work after four months. It’s a radical approach—but some schools don’t even track how many graduates go on to get jobs in their field. Monitoring this is “absolutely critical,” says University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera. “If your students are not finding employment, it means that employers are not finding them competitive.” Even so, it’s hard to know which schools are turning out the most employable grads, which leaves some industry leaders shaking their heads. “Amazingly enough, [employability] is not the metric for success that universities follow,” says businessman Reza Satchu, who teaches the highly successful economics of entrepreneurship course at the University of Toronto.

Last year, 12,500 students were asked: “What was the single most important reason in your decision to attend university?” by the Canadian University Survey Consortium (CUSC). Nine per cent wanted “a good general education.” Nearly 70 per cent had enrolled to “get a good job” or “train for a specific career.” Will university students start demanding their education give them a clear path to a job? And, just as importantly, should they?

Jack Lightstone, the president of Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., says parents of students often ask him, “What job will my son or daughter get if they take this degree?” It’s a reasonable question. “There was a time when relatively few people went to university, and believe me, it wasn’t all that long ago,” he says. Back then, he adds, there were many jobs to be had without a university education. “It’s a good thing that more people go to university,” he says. “But there’s a whole different attitude as a result.”

More Canadians are attending university, and they’re paying more for it, too. Tuition rose from $1,900 in 1990 to $5,100 in 2010, according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC). All in, a four-year degree now costs about $80,000. “We have a higher proportion of students whose parents went to university, and we see and hear from them more,” says Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. Many, he says, “are looking for a return on investment” in their child’s tuition. And, for the most part, they get it: university grads in 2005 had median annual earnings of $45,000 two years later, compared to $33,000 for college grads, according to a Statistics Canada report.

Over their lifetimes, university graduates earn an average of 75 per cent more than non-graduates. As the knowledge economy continues to grow—and manufacturing jobs disappear—there’s more demand for university grads in the workforce than ever. From 1990 to 2009, the number of jobs for people with a degree climbed from 1.9 million to 4.2 million, according to the AUCC. Over the same period, there were 1.1 million fewer jobs for those with a high school diploma or less. Even during the recession, this pattern held true. From September 2008 to September 2010, there were 280,000 more jobs for university grads, and 260,000 fewer for those without a degree.

There’s no question that a university degree is now a passport to the work world. But with so many wielding diplomas, and bright minds emigrating to Canada, job competition remains stiff. Prospective students might shop around for a degree that gives them an edge, but that’s easier said than done. Many universities do a surprisingly spotty job of tracking their graduates’ employment once they leave school, even though this information would benefit students, and the schools themselves.

Despite its focus on employability, the University of Regina doesn’t keep data on how many of its graduates are hired in their chosen field, but a 2006-’07 survey found that its graduates had a higher employment rate than the general labour force in the province, and the highest employment rate of all post-secondary institutions in Saskatchewan. The University of Alberta makes its graduates’ unemployment rates available to the public on its website. (In 2010, four per cent of arts and science grads from the class of 2008 were unemployed, figures show.) The government of Alberta tracks employment rates of graduates in the province, but doesn’t break the available data down by school.

Over on the East Coast, the Maritime provinces’ Higher Education Commission tracks graduates’ employment rates and other data. In 2009, its latest report shows, 81 per cent of employed graduates from the class of 2007 were working full-time, and 75 per cent of them said their degree helped them get the job “to some or great extent.” But individual schools don’t necessarily keep their own figures. “We probably could track them better,” says Campbell, chair of the Association of Atlantic Universities. Mount Allison, he adds, is starting to track its grads now.

In 1998, the Ontario government started what was then a hugely controversial move: keeping tabs on “key performance indicators” at all publicly funded colleges and universities. This was done to strengthen accountability, and to help prospective students make better career-related choices. About one per cent of these institutions’ funding is tied to its indicators, including the school’s employment rate six months and two years after graduation. These numbers show that, for example, 90 per cent of the University of Ottawa’s 2006 computer science grads were employed six months after finishing an undergraduate degree, compared to 87.5 per cent at Queen’s.

Ryerson University, in downtown Toronto, carefully tracks how many students are employed after graduation, as well as how many manage to get work “in an area related to their field of study,” says president Sheldon Levy. This last piece of information is crucial, since it can inform the curriculum, as it has done with Ryerson’s journalism program. “A large number of students apply, but now we’re worried about the number of job opportunities, so we won’t increase” the spaces, Levy says. “Instead, we’re looking at how we should reinvent it.”

UOIT also prides itself on responding to the job market—that’s part of its mandate. The school was created “to pay attention to the world of work, and to ensure our graduates are capable of being excellent contributors,” Bordessa says. “Universities are funded by taxpayers, and have a responsibility to produce graduates that are of value.” Since the school was created in 2002, its model has been increasingly embraced: “The system is moving closer to us.”

Some universities—notably Waterloo and Sherbrooke—understood this shift early on. Waterloo’s been offering co-op programs since it was founded in 1957, and today it operates the largest post-secondary co-op program of its kind in the world. The Université de Sherbrooke, meanwhile, has offered co-op programs for 45 years. “Employers tell me that, when we get resumés, they always take the one who did co-op,” says Denis-Robert Élias, executive director of Sherbrooke’s co-op work term and placement program. Employers know these students have at least a year of work experience under their belt.

Other schools have followed suit. Brock University started offering co-ops in 1984, and today it’s the fifth-largest co-op school in Canada. “We’ve expanded our offerings tremendously,” Lightstone says.

Even small liberal arts schools like Mount Allison aren’t immune to new expectations. With so many students from outside the province, “we’re sensitive to the market,” Campbell says, and “we’re very aware of this as a change.” It may sound like a small concession, but this is the first academic year that Mount Allison has a dedicated career counsellor on staff. “We never had one, but the students asked for it,” he says. Before, on Mount A’s small, residential campus, counselling would have happened more informally between faculty, students and alumni, he says. “Now, it’s been professionalized.”

In Winnipeg, Axworthy is focused on responding to his community’s needs. “Our university serves a lot of Aboriginal students, and a large number of new Canadians,” he says. “We’re a public, downtown university with a diverse constituency. We can’t stay locked in behind the walls.” Last year, the school announced an agreement with Winnipeg Technical College to give students academic and technical training in fields like information technology, business, theatre and film. “It’s good for carpenters to learn about Shakespeare, and to have a drama student learn how to make a stage,” he says.

Not everybody agrees that schools should be tailoring themselves to the job market. “The object of a liberal education is to teach students how to think,” says Daniel Brandes, who directs the Foundation Year Programme at the University of King’s College in Halifax. This program, which takes about 300 ?rst-year students through texts by authors like Plato, St. Augustine and Dante in a series of lectures and small tutorials, has proven tremendously successful (next year marks its 40th anniversary). “We’ve stuck with an understanding of education that isn’t geared primarily toward the marketplace,” Brandes says, “and, as a happy effect, our students have done well.”

No matter how career-focused the education, he and others say, skills like reading, writing and critical thinking will always be crucial in the workplace, and in life. “Many of the jobs our kids are going to get don’t exist at the moment,” Campbell adds. “They’ll be produced by the economy over the next five or 10 years.” Bordessa agrees. “You can’t be a successful person in the modern world of work unless you have a good grounding in the universal values that have always characterized universities,” he says.

Brenna Sobanski, a student in the foundation year program at King’s College, still isn’t sure what she’d like to do after graduation, but she isn’t concerned at the moment. “I don’t see the value of university education as just training for the workforce, at least not for me,” the 20-year-old says. “I feel like critical thinking skills set you up to go into anything.”

Deneiko, though, is already picturing her future career as a teacher. One of the most valuable experiences she’s had so far in university was a program that paired her with a working teacher, she says. “Within six weeks of starting,” she says, “I was in a Grades 1 and 2 classroom. It was kind of scary, but exciting, too.” No doubt it will serve her well once she’s teaching a class of her own—and her university is so certain of it, they’re willing to give her a guarantee.

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