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New report says university degrees don’t indicate skill level

Photo by Jennifer Vo.

A report by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) suggests that universities are doing a very poor job of assessing the most basic skills of their graduates.

“Are we measuring what matters?” Harvey Weingarten, the president and CEO of the HEQCO, asked in an editorial in the Globe and Mail. He said that assessing both incoming and graduating students’ skills is a priority, one that Canadian universities aren’t taking seriously enough. “We have to do a better job of measuring the outcomes of the post-secondary education that Ontario students are getting.”

A HEQCO-funded survey found in 2012 that 29 per cent of employers named a lack of skills as a problem when hiring university students—10 per cent said it was their top challenge.

In an interview with the Fulcrum, Weingarten recommends measuring several kinds of outcomes, which range from basic skills like literacy and numeracy, to behavioural skills like persistence and determination. According to Weingarten, the latter skills “appear to be most predictive of success in the workplace.”

Dany Laveault is a professor at the University of Ottawa specializing in education, and an expert consultant for the Educational Quality and Accountability in Ontario (EQAO). Laveault has spent years evaluating undergraduate programs.

The U of O is “very serious about making sure that we find out if university students have the necessary skills to perform in the market,” said Laveault.

He explained that at the U of O, undergraduate programs are evaluated on a rotational basis every seven years. The reports, with the experts’ comments and recommendations, can be accessed on the university’s website. The report involves a combination of internal and external reviewers.

However, the university does not measure the specific competencies of incoming or graduating students like the council recommends.

The need to teach students valuable skills is partly the reason why universities have experienced a surge in popularity of co-op programs, said Weingarten.

Co-op was first introduced at the University of Waterloo when 75 students were enrolled in an engineering program. The University of Ottawa claimed the fourth-largest co-op program in Canada in 2013, with 4,898 undergraduate students and 112 graduates students enrolled in one of the 75 co-op programs offered.

“The push we’re seeing in universities for co-op and integrative learning is an attempt on the part of universities to use work experience as a way of promoting these skills,” said Weingarten. “Are such programs really useful? “Who knows? We won’t know until we measure.”

Laveault and Weingarten agree the problem is more complicated because it’s very difficult to know exactly what skills employers want.

“Who knows what skills you’re going to need 10 years from now,” said Laveault. “There’s a big debate right now among universities about whether we should prepare students for specific skills or very general skills of literacy and numeracy. The problem is finding the right balance between overgeneralization and overspecialization.”

While there is a dichotomy between what universities teach their students and the skills employers are actually looking for, Laveault thinks it is simply unrealistic to aim for a perfect match. “The market would like the universities to train the future employees, but to do that we would need thousands of programs and we would be doing the job of the employer. The employers also need to do their job and train their employees.”

“Employers are dancing around the issue of what skills they want,” said Weingarten, which is why he thinks it’s crucial to collect this information. “We need to get on to the job and actually measure those competences in our students.”

According to Laveault, students need to meet the university halfway and develop those skills themselves, by participating in extracurricular activities.

“I think it all depends from what the student brings,” he said. “There’s only so much university can do for you, at some point it’s the student who has to take charge.”