Alex Paterson

Opinion: The modern university: relevant? Yes, but is this enough?

May 21, 2013

On May 9, 2013 Canada 2020 staff attended a Canadian Club of Ottawa lunch at which Allan Rock, President of the University of Ottawa and former Chretien-era cabinet minister, delivered a speech entitled “The Skills Mismatch and the Myth of the Irrelevant University”.

The speech reiterated that getting a university degree continues to lead to higher lifetime wages. Rock emphasized the pursuit of knowledge as the main goal of education (and, by extension, of the university). He stressed that thoughtful analysis and critical thinking will always be essential skills, and that universities remain the sole institutions where these core competencies are inculcated amongst the next generation.

As we perhaps should have expected, the speech and the short discussion that followed were somewhat self-congratulatory. Rock stressed the continued relevance of universities, especially in today’s knowledge economy. This is beyond dispute but, upon further reflection, I wonder if perhaps we should be asking another question: is simply being ‘relevant’ enough? The answer is no.

This narrow view of knowledge trivializes learning outside of the academic setting, which is both crucial and complementary.

When asked if universities were doing enough to prepare young graduates for the job market, Rock answered that graduates were still being hired and this in itself proved that universities were fulfilling their duties. Is this proof enough? In the United States, the McKinsey Centre for Government found that while 70% of educators thought that graduates were adequately prepared for the job market, less than 50% of employers and young graduates agreed. This is a disconnect, and a concerning one, especially in view of ever increasing tuition fees and higher and higher degree requirements to get a “good job”.

While I will not argue against having a university degree (I, after all, have a master’s degree) I do find that President Rock’s arguments trivialize the challenges facing the next generation. McKinsey & Company rather elegantly points out the paradox: “Higher education has never been more valuable but 48% of university graduates in the U.S. are now in jobs that don’t require degrees”. Although there is a lack of data on this phenomenon in Canada, the situation is likely not much different here.

One of the only comprehensive reports on the issue in Canada, by the Certified General Accountants Association of Canada, finds that in 2005, 24.6% of young university graduates held jobs that required less than a university degree.

Apparently the future is bright for University of Ottawa grads, though. The university self-reports that two years after graduation 82% of graduates working full time are employed in a field related to their studies. It would be interesting to know what they define as a related field, what percentage are actually working full time, and what methodology has been used, since these findings seem contrary to overall employment trends. The full-time/part-time/temporary axis is particularly important: working on temporary contracts is an increasingly normal – if shaky – reality for many young Canadians.

This is not to trivialize the university experience, nor the importance of higher education in general. But we must recognize that the modern university has to adapt and continually strive to do better. Young graduates are facing tremendous challenges and universities must open their eyes to these. In a world where the job market evolves at such a rapid pace, all actors – from industry to the not-for-profit sector – must be involved in creating interactive, dynamic and innovative learning environments. As demand for skills evolves faster than universities are adapting, partnerships beyond co-ops and internships are all the more crucial to training graduates.

Universities could do more by involving companies, multiple levels of governments and not-for-profits in their institutions – and, yes, this can be achieved without compromising academic freedom.

Courses should include more hands-on and practical case studies: in an ideal world, public policy students should take part in real strategic policy development in partnership with government departments and business students should develop and participate in the implementation of new supply chain systems for existing SMEs, not fictitious ones. Some universities have been better than others at providing such an experience for their students (notably the University of Waterloo and its tech industry partners).

Such a model would require more resources from all actors and likely yield smaller cohorts of students, but the young graduates trained would be the best and brightest in their field. The next generation of students expects interactive learning environments, with meaningful outlets for their ideas and entrepreneurial spirits. Millennials have more tools than ever to realize their aspirations: universities must keep up or risk losing this cohort. Indeed the demand for entrepreneurial university programs (diplomas and degrees in innovation, strategy and entrepreneurship) is already at an all-time high in Canada.

Certainly universities are still relevant and they are getting better at creating opportunities for their students. But could they be doing better? Yes. And unless university administrators recognize this, the ‘myth’ of the irrelevant university will persist.

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