The University Myth

Forty-seven percent of Canadians have a post-secondary degree of some kind and, according to the CCL:

Even by 1950, less than 6% of Canadian 25- to 44-year-olds had university degrees. Today, secondary schooling is universally available, and the proportion of 25- to 44-year-olds with university degrees is near 20%.

Even going back to the 1970’s, when I started university, it was almost a ticket to a good job. Stay in school, get a degree, get a job, etc. However much there may have been a correlation between having a university degree and getting a good job, this is not a causal relationship. It was a social and cultural norm, based on the fact that for most of the twentieth century, having a degree put you in an elite, minority situation. This was coupled by the fact that HR departments had found an easy criterion to reduce the number of applicants; just require that certain positions require a degree. Many workers (e.g. junior managers) also had the comfort of taking time to learn on the job, so day one job ready skills were not a requirement.

Universities had it easy too. They could say that getting a degree helped you get a good job, because salaries were correlated with education. Enrolment increased, universities expanded and the academic system flourished. If it were so easy today.

The problem is that universities do little to prepare for work. The skills learned are seldom workplace oriented. But then, that is not the nature of the university. We as a society bought into the myth that university education equated to good jobs. From 1950 to 2003, the ratio of current university undergrads to the general population increased five-fold in Canada. As long as there were few university graduates, we had obvious correlation to good jobs, even though universities had not changed their basic operating models, established centuries earlier. Perhaps more science and logic would have prepared parents and students for our current situation.

I’m not advocating for the closure of universities, but we need to expand our horizons on other options for work preparation. We have put a lot of money into universities, less into community colleges and even less into apprenticeship programs. For those not believing the university myth, there are limited choices. Learning professionals need to get out of their boxes and help create some better choices. There is some correlation between learning professionals and learning, isn’t there?

11 Responses to “The University Myth”

  1. Simon Bostock

    Good point.

    Universities are more like newspapers than people care to admit. They’re actually bundles of services which people believe belong together ‘naturally’ by dint of habit.

    Whether we advocate for their closure or not, they’re doomed in their present form.

    I’d love to see a country offer its young people a choice between higher education and start-up funding. Given a few tens of thousands of dollars and three years (and a little assistance) I’m pretty sure most people could come up with a magnificent failure, at the very least.

    As for apprenticeships, I’m going to kill my training business in 2010 and to offer apprentice-support through KM/social L & D programmes. Does anybody else do this?

    Reply
  2. Samuel Dragon

    Well built reflexion,

    it is good to witness the opposite reflexion taking place in Quebec as the real value of CEGEP is periodically being questionned. Among other things, it is sometimes considered a hinderance to University level education and it is often criticized that it does not properly prepare for the employment market.

    Meanwhile, we can also acknowledge a tendency of some professional orders to require ever higher level of education to perform different tasks. The best example of this would be with the different health workers professional orders; in the past ten years, Psychologist have had their requirements raised to Doctorate level, Physiotherapist require a master degree, etc.

    It is quite the paradox that, while in HR classes they’re teaching a philosophy very close to the one you’re advocating (leaving behind the whole “silo” thinking), some field would to the contrary turn to “over-academisation”.

    Truth is, we define our specialities and tools trough the work we execute and there is a limit to the knowledge and preparation a school can provide an individual.

    Reply
  3. Howard Johnson

    I agree Harold;
    As long as degrees correlate with income, Universities will be safe, regardless of the rationale, but if people stopped believing this they would dry up fast than . . .. Intellectual development is definitely still important, but things are changing so fast. The ability to learn and the network to facilitate it may become more important than a degree, but it will only matter if businesses find a way to recognize this as a foundation for personal and team performance.

    Reply
  4. Jon Husband

    Stay in school, get a degree, get a job, etc. However much there may have been a correlation between having a university degree and getting a good job, this is not a causal relationship. It was a social and cultural norm,

    It goes even deeper. The various levels of education (non-HS degree, HS degree, Vocational college, university, post-graduate …) are still the central pegs for the knowledge-level factors embedded in every job evaluation scheme, and therefore deeply informs the organizational structure of almost every organization over the size of say 100 people.

    The assumptions about knowledge and how they are applied to the definition, measurement and assessment of work are very very deeply embedded in our organizational structures and beliefs about how things function.

    Reply
  5. Joe

    I would have to say that Harold’s post is true in that a university education in most areas of study is unlikely to prepare you for a job – at least as far as developing the skills that a corporate employer seeks. However, I resist measuring everything through an economic lens. While many changes need to be made to the world of academia (and I can say that cause I work in it, and am working on a PhD), most businesses are not that different. It matters less and less what you can do – but matters more and more who you know. And I don’t mean who you are connected with on FB or LinkedIn. It’s who you know that can get your foot in the door. It’s who your parents know from the club. It’s who your uncle plays golf with on Saturdays. It’s a protectionist system of class preference (sometimes based on race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation as well).

    Because jobs as we’ve come to understand them are disappearing, the university can help us develop a life of the mind. And I increasing believe that the life of the mind is a more interesting investment than skills. Apprenticeships can also be a wonderful thing, but if we’re just going after it for economic gain, it’s unlikely to be the answer we seek.

    It’s going to take a lot of creativity to get through the mess we are in. Creativity is rarely valued in the corporate world – I know because I worked there for many years. Look at what measuring everything by economic measures has gotten us. Oh, the folly….

    Reply
  6. Jon Husband

    Because jobs as we’ve come to understand them are disappearing, the university can help us develop a life of the mind. And I increasing believe that the life of the mind is a more interesting investment than skills. Apprenticeships can also be a wonderful thing, but if we’re just going after it for economic gain, it’s unlikely to be the answer we seek.
    It’s going to take a lot of creativity to get through the mess we are in. Creativity is rarely valued in the corporate world – I know because I worked there for many years. Look at what measuring everything by economic measures has gotten us. Oh, the folly….

    Bingo !

    Reply
  7. Gilbert

    “The key is accreditation. As long as the credentials (degrees) are recognized by employers, then university will have market value. ”

    University degrees will lose their semi-monopolistic value as means of accrediting knowledge appear, and they will appear, in a knowledge economy.

    One day, in a near future, employer’s will have access to powerful assessment tools and services that will let the employer comprehensively assess potential employee knowledge at a very low cost. I doubt that the university degrees will have the same value when that happens.

    Accreditation is a gold mine for entrepreneurs.

    Gilbert

    Reply
    • Harold Jarche

      Great to see you here again, Gilbert. I’ve always appreciated your comments and it’s good to know you’re still dropping by. All the best for new year, and let’s see what interesting things it brings!

      Reply

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