When I was doing my third undergraduate year in classics at the University of Gottingen, Germany, I met a couple of young locals, Ute and Gerhardt.
Ute was taking one semester of German literature before apprenticing to become a goldsmith. Gerhardt had enrolled in a couple of European history courses before training to become a tool and die maker. Neither had any delusions of tying up seats in lecture halls for four degree-seeking years when their goal was to enter the skilled trades in a country where the skilled trades remain well respected.
Some critics of Canadian universities think that more of our high school grads should be like Ute and Gerhardt and admit that what they want out of post-secondary education is a well-paying job and not the tome-heavy intellectual calisthenics that seats of higher learning have traditionally been known for. They suggest that our universities are admitting too many students-each at great cost-and many of them do not belong in the reading- and writing-intensive programs of academe. Many have little motivation and aptitude for their studies and will not graduate.
Among these critics are history professors Dr. Kenneth Coates and Dr. Bill Morrison. Their book, Campus Confidential: 100 Startling Things You Don’t Know about Canadian Universities (James Lorimer, 2011), notes that Canada has one of the world’s highest post-secondary participation rates, with nearly half of all high school graduates attending college or university.
Coates argues that “they and their parents have bought the mantra: Go to university, get a degree, then get a white-collar career.” He thinks some university students would be more content-and more prosperous-working in practical hands-on jobs like Ute and Gerhardt, who, I’m sure, have made spanking good livings from their trades.
In the workplace, employers complain that a contemporary BA degree is no guarantee that a recent university grad has good writing, research, organizational and analytical skills. One factor in this may be that with the enrolment of large numbers of unsuited students-who consider a university education a right like medicare-university admissions departments and grade-giving faculty have had to adjust their standards downward. And the many disenchanted BAs working behind counters or steering wheels complain that a university education was not the magic bullet or philosopher’s stone they were led to believe it was. Even in a knowledge-based society, that degree does not translate for many grads into a management-track career.
According to Coates and Morrison, Canada should rethink its approach to post-secondary schooling, with more students streamed not to university but to technical and practical training. Clearly, there’s an enduring demand for IT support staff and health-care technicians, electricians, plumbers, skilled construction workers, draftsmen and tool and die makers.
Unlike Canada’s supernumerary BAs, I’ll bet Gerhardt and Ute never suffered a day of unemployment all their working lives.
Diana Swift is an interim staff writer at the Anglican Journal and a contributing editor to the Report on Education.