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. Enrollment 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. While 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 this 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?

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