The ivory tower, the vast and the aimless

Post-secondary institutions need to prioritize employment outcomes, or else the free market will

Economic factors are significantly impacting the lives of post-secondary graduates in Canada.

If universities do not begin to prioritize the employment outcomes of their graduates, allocate funding accordingly and carve out a space for meaningful work experiences, then it seems as though post-secondary graduates in Canada are at risk of having their careers determined by capitalist market forces and the laws of supply and demand.

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

Statistical analysis of the labour market in Canada is pointing more and more toward the fact that a university degree does not necessarily lead to work in a related field. Accordingly, the youth unemployment rate in Canada is 11.2 per cent as of January 2019, which Scott Stirrett and Parm Gill write in the Globe and Mail is “nearly double the national average.”

And this is not because young people in Canada are uneducated. Youth unemployment probably has more to do with the fact that the national mindset has not quite caught up with the economic realities Canada is facing. Stirret and Gill write that “there is increasing feedback from employers that graduates are lacking the skills they need.”

A 2018 Statistics Canada analysis found that about 18 per cent of all Canadian youth between the ages of 24 and 34 who have a university degree are working jobs that require a high-school education or less.

This number drastically increases to about 39 per cent for newcomer youth who hold university degrees from outside the United States or Canada. Though university education is increasingly promoted as being for everyone, it remains valued primarily along Eurocentric and exclusive lines and does not necessarily translate into work in a desired field.

At the same time, college and polytechnic programs, many of which have extremely high post-grad employment rates, remain stigmatized.

Ken Coates writes in an article for CBC that “far too few Canadian families take time to examine the alternatives” and instead “have accepted the mantra about the extraordinary value of a university degree.” In fact, Canada boasts a number of high-quality polytechs and colleges that prepare students rigorously for specific fields of employment. Some of these programs are actually much harder to get into than university.

Ultimately, both universities and colleges offer invaluable forms of education and provide students with increased chances of employment and financial success. Although employment outcomes are sometimes more obscured in academic disciplines (such as the humanities, social sciences and abstract science and math), students with bachelor’s degrees still “make on average an additional $25,000 dollars per year compared to high school graduates,” write Stirrett and Gill.

Fighting for equitable education and ensuring the success of graduates working in Canada requires action on a number of fronts. Though access to a university education should be nationally prioritized, universities should also increasingly work to emphasize career counselling and employment outcomes. Work must also be done to de-stigmatize the advanced college and polytechnic programs that are available in Canada.

Debunking the elitist ivory tower mythologies does not mean resolving post-secondary education to the ebbs and flows of free-market capitalism or only funding programs that lead directly to economically beneficial careers.

If universities are to remain relevant, they must find ways to foster and fund campus environments that connect students to meaningful employment opportunities.

Work must be done to develop universities and colleges alike as spaces of dialogue, where students are supported to explore their options, get work experience and vet their options, regardless of the programs they are in.

Haley Pauls is a writer, editor and academic working in the fields of cultural studies and communications. She is based out of Winnipeg, located on Treaty 1 territory.

Published in Volume 74, Number 8 of The Uniter (October 31, 2019)

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