When my grandfather was 19 years old, he walked through the front doors of Stamford Collegiate High School in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and applied for a job. He was one of eight children, all boys, who were born and raised on a small Ontario farm during the Great Depression.
Barely out of high school himself, he was hired on the spot as a gym teacher and guidance counsellor. He would spend the rest of his adult working life at Stamford, coaching soccer and basketball. He raised two daughters, was able to purchase a new car every few years, and had a summer cottage up north to which he would eventually retire with my grandmother. My grandfather took a year-long accreditation course at McMaster University to become a guidance counsellor before going back to complete a BA once he found a paying job.
Both of his daughters went to university in Ontario, one of whom, my mother, went on to earn a doctorate degree at the University of Toronto. While her father, with no experience to speak of, was able to walk to the local high school and get a job, my mother’s working life has been complicated by changes in employers, locations, and lengthy commutes. My mother and father, in the prime of their working lives, only recently paid off the debt they incurred more than 25 years ago when they first entered university.
There are approximately 818,000 full-time undergraduates currently enrolled in classes at Canadian universities. Many of these students are contributing to the nation’s growing national student debt — which, according to the Canadian Federation of Students’ website, has long surpassed $15 billion and continues to grow. More and more students are enrolling in universities every year, university tuition rates continue to rise, and the debt keeps mounting.
The likelihood is that you will graduate from university in four or more years with some, if not significant, debt and no more employable than you would have been if you had spent those years doing something else.
In a piece on its website earlier this year, the CBC indicated that Ontario has the worst youth unemployment statistics in the country. “There is only one in two Ontarians between the ages 15 and 24 who have paid employment. What that is, is the worst numbers we’ve seen since Statscan has kept these numbers since 1976,” said Sean Geobey, a doctoral candidate in social and environmental finance at the University of Waterloo. Geobey’s research contributed to the findings covered in the article. While Canada has fortunately not experienced the same kind of economic lag that is still devastating other nations in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the country is still struggling to make up lost ground. In the city of Toronto alone, 18.1 per cent of youth are currently without paying jobs.
Amidst these discouraging statistics, the government of Ontario has been embattled with partisan platforms looking to make fundamental changes to the province’s post-secondary education system, in an attempt to better prepare the next generation’s workforce. Last year, for instance, the provincial Progressive Conservatives, led by Tim Hudak, released a white paper titled “Paths to Prosperity: Higher Learning for Better Jobs.” The controversial policy paper has been the source of much debate over the future of Ontario’s employment market since its release. The current Liberal government, under Premier Kathleen Wynne, has yet to respond with its own proposal.
There is virtue in proposing a fundamental shift in the way Canadian society thinks about post-secondary education. For decades now, a university degree has widely been considered a prerequisite to a fulfilling work life. A generation of young Canadians has been misinformed about the value of the university experience, and our economy is suffering as a result. Canadians need to stop and reconsider the purpose and reality of a university education. Unless you are enrolled in a practical discipline, like engineering or certain sciences, university is not about preparing for the working world — nor is it it about developing essential skills for employment.
The four-year-degree structure is ultimately about developing responsible, intelligent citizens. This is not to say that employers are not looking for intelligent, reasonable people — they certainly are, but it is not nearly enough. University is about developing critical thinking skills and gaining a specialized education. At the risk of sounding elitist, students dragging their feet through arts degrees, sleeping in lectures, and waiting on OSAP or other loan payments to make tuition are simply wasting their time if they think a job is waiting for them.
Year after year, a class of indebted young people is unloaded from the university system in Canada, smiling in their graduation pictures, diplomas in hand. The sad truth is that very few of these bright-eyed graduates will make a seamless transition into the working world, where their experience is relevant. A shift in society’s perception of the value of a university education must happen, and it must happen soon. A new emphasis should be placed on education in the trades and other practical skill sets. There are simply too many people in Canada today without jobs, and too many jobs without people.
The universities themselves are complicit in this crisis. As institutions admit more and more students and collect tuition fees, they devalue the degrees and certifications they grant. If the only criteria for receiving a degree are that you are able to pay and satisfy the lowest standard of achievement, then the degree is worthless. It is a simple question of supply and demand: the more BA students there are floating around the job market, the less valuable the degree becomes. Universities are doing a disservice to their students and to society as a whole if they continue to offer degrees to anyone who can pay.
Year after year, a class of indebted young people is unloaded from the university system in Canada, smiling in their graduation pictures, diplomas in hand. The sad truth is that very few of these bright-eyed graduates will make the seamless transition into the working world, where their experience is relevant. A shift in society’s perception of the value of a university education must happen, and it must happen soon.
Universities cannot be advertised as a way station to fulfilling employment; they must be considered centres for higher learning, institutions dedicated to the development of well-rounded citizens, and that is all. The truth is, you do not need to be well-rounded to find a job in Canada right now — you need skills. You need to be able to make or fix things. There simply is not enough room in the job pool for a thousand art history majors.
Most of the change needs to take place in homes and high schools. Parents, teachers, and guidance counsellors need to reexamine the way that university is presented to students. University is expensive, it is hard, and it is not for everyone. Students need to have a sober and objective understanding of what they are getting into before they accept admission offers. It is a significant expense, either for the family or the individual, and it represents a significant opportunity cost: there will be substantial lost wages in return for your undergraduate efforts, and you will have lost time that could have been spent developing other skills or pursuing other experiences. The likelihood is that you will graduate from university in four or more years with some, if not significant, debt and no more employable than you would have been if you had spent those years doing something else.
What Ontario and Canada as a whole need now are fewer universities. We need to foster and develop institutions that provide young people with the skills they need to support themselves financially. I would personally much rather enjoy my life as a pipefitter, welder, or plumber — making a respectable wage with which I can support myself and a family — than I would working at a coffee shop, without an office wall upon which to display my degree.