Expecting universities to provide vocational skills is misguided
In 2017, Canada is “investing in education so that the next generation of Canadians has the tools it needs to make an impact in the careers of today and tomorrow” writes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Economist’s The World in 2017 special.
The statement is a good omen for universities hoping for more federal funding, however, it reflects a continued view of education where all too often university is seen as an investment with expected financial returns and is stripped of its less tangible importance as a foundation for long-term development.
In the view echoed by Trudeau, an education is something to be acquired through a combination of paying tuition, achieving certain grades and spending time studying. The end result is to “have an education.” An education that, as Marjo Johne writes in The Globe and Mail, many university graduates consider their “key to jobs.”
However, when university education is considered an investment to purchase, it undermines what makes university worthwhile to begin with. Education doesn’t need to satisfy a traditional cost-benefit analysis the way workplace training programs do because it provides something different.
Taking a Coursera course, watching a Khan Academy video or learning to code through Codecademy provides a potent example of the precarious role of universities as technical training centres. There are many new ways to learn, many of which are faster and more efficient than attending lectures. Further, students can learn exactly what they want to learn, when they want and for less money.
It’s this thinking that allows Harvard Business Review to run the headline “The Degree Is Doomed.” And there are wake up calls that universities are losing touch: Google doesn’t require university degrees for computer science positions and the Independent reports that other firms such as EY are also turning away from degree credentials as job requirements.
Yet none of the new online learning tools seem to provide the same intellectual growth as a good course under a good professor. What’s missing from these new modes of learning is the student-teacher relationship that stretches and challenges, attacks preconceived notions and defines a great university learning experience.
So long as intellectual growth doesn’t end after four years of university, graduating university acts as a start line, not a means to an ends where one “achieves” education. This also implies that universities don’t need to focus on teaching strictly “employable” skills.
In many cases, technical skills are highly job-specific and best taught on the job anyways. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find a self-improvement or continuing education course in epistemology.
In this sense, a good university education needs to focus on the process rather than the content. It demands a process that challenges and stretches students human interaction and new experiences. It forms a foundation for future learning and understanding. You can’t “get” an education if it’s lifelong process.