The Courage to Find Balance – Part 2

Universities Like Colleges

Faculty Creativity

Although there is much argument in the Academy regarding the purpose of a university, the idea of embracing a job-focused orientation is not new.  Professional programs have found homes in universities well before colleges were even established.  As an example, the first business school (Wharton) was established at Penn in 1881.  One of the first law schools evolved out of Yale nearly 60 years earlier.  In 1855, the University of New Brunswick offered Canada’s first engineering program not long after a similar program was established at Harvard.  Universities have a long, albeit controversial history in the area of professional education (that is, training similar to colleges in terms of intended employment outcomes).  I happen to believe the shift in this direction must continue.

The question is what to do with liberal arts programs and the humanities.  Let me state clearly, I believe we need these programs.  However, I do not believe we need as many of them nor as many graduates.  I am conflicted in this position as colleges are the benefactors of having many university graduates come to college to acquire the skills, training and knowledge that they require to become employed.  On a positive note, the combination of the two learning experiences can be very powerful.

Economic Antecedents

There have been arguments that arts and humanities programs result in greater economic prosperity for the student.  Data from Statistics Canada is often used as evidence that university arts graduates achieve higher wages.   However, lets be careful on this point.  We need to think more deeply about the correlation between these increased wages and the learning that occurs in a particular arts or humanities program. Professor Richard Vedder raises a number of points about this perspective.

In his American-centric book, Going Broke by Degree, Vedder provocatively states that these graduates accrue these economic benefits often as a result of the university simply serving as “a screening device for employers, a means of dramatically lowering the costs of searching for employees with leadership potential, technical skills, imagination and drive, and dependability and intelligence”.   Vedder suggests that four years at university simply serves as a human resource filtering system as opposed to the notion that the learning that occurs in many of these university programs is the driver behind higher earned wages.

Finding Balance – Challenging the Status Quo

My point is that we must have the courage to question where we have traditionally invested in public higher education, particularly in these times of economic turmoil.  If we assume little new investment in higher education is forthcoming, we must put more of our scarce public funds into educational programs and initiatives that provide the skills and knowledge required by employers and our communities; the skills that will directly improve our economic and social condition.  I would also include the need to significantly increase the investment we have made in information communication technologies (ICT). When used appropriately and when our faculty are supported properly, ICTs can enhance access and increase the learning experience for our students.

Most college programs, as well as many programs offered in universities across the country are nicely aligned to industry.  We have much to celebrate in this regard. Unfortunately, I believe funding for the humanities is simply over-invested and has resulted in an over-saturated market.  There are too many unskilled, over-educated graduates who have realized a significant financial personal benefit (along with significant personal debt) by way of an education that has been greatly underwritten by the public purse (Note: this is a positive benefit accrued by most post secondary students in Canada).  This has a significant personal and economic cost.

Video: The Problem with the Drift to the Humanities

Recently, Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google gave an unflattering rebuke of British higher education.  He stated that the British economy was at risk because its higher education system’s “drift to the humanities”.  He suggested we need more balance between professional education and the humanities.  He reminded us “Lewis Carroll didn’t just write one of the classic fairytales of all time.  He was also a mathematices tutor at Oxford”.  The challenge we face in Canada is to find the balance through what I would call deliberate education investment.  This academic balance is also required in Colleges and is one of the reasons I continue to support general education, communication and other similar courses as part of the core program area.

Prudent Diversity of Education

As we continue through the second decade of the 21st century, we must continue to question the purpose of higher education.  I would argue that this purpose has changed.  We must be reminded of President Troope’s wisdom when he stated, “what the country needs is a diversity of higher education”.

Colleges in Canada, and certainly in Ontario bring that diversity; they bring balance to higher education and they ensure our public and private employers have the skilled workers they need to be successful.  College graduates go beyond simply knowing about the needs of the country.  They are the ones that actually build, manufacture and service the needs of the country.  To ensure a complete and coherent education system, we need the wisdom to invest appropriately in colleges; we need the courage to find balance.



About kentmacdonald

President and Vice Chancellor Professor, Faculty of Education St. Francis Xavier University
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