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An open letter to the presidents of Canadian universities

Mercedes Mueller | Fulcrum Contributor

Dear university presidents,

You are failing us. No, I’m not talking about the hundreds of failing grades we rightfully earned last semester. I’m talking about how the million undergraduate students enrolled in Canadian universities right now are being ill prepared for the working world in a poorly organized education system.

It’s no secret that recent grads are having a hard time finding jobs. With youth unemployment at 13.5 per cent, even the brightest students are stuck waiting tables after graduation. And perhaps we’ve been naive. We busted ass for four years to earn that BA, but we shouldn’t have really expected to enter the workforce and make a livable wage. Wait—what?

It seems like the university system in Canada is overly preoccupied with the input-output function of institutions. On the input side, students enroll, tuition is paid, funding for research comes in, and professors and other support staff fill the buildings. Then a bunch of stuff happens, and we magically have graduation rates, research findings, and rankings to report.

But what about your students? Where do our academic experiences, satisfaction with the university we’ve likely devoted four years of our lives to, and the extent to which we’ve truly mastered our field fit into this black-box approach to education? What’s going on inside that box is where the majority of our problems occur.

Universities pride themselves on teaching students critical thinking and reasoning skills. Yet upon entering the workforce, many grads have little to offer employers in terms of “skills.” Skills, primarily associated with the hands-on learning done at colleges, are a severely lacking component of university curricula. When one considers that the majority of BA graduates would like to enter the workforce without having to obtain further degrees, learning a skill or two in undergrad isn’t asking a lot.

We also lack the information we need to make decisions about our education—be it as 16-year-olds in high school trying to decide if university is for us, or as 25-year-olds deciding whether to pursue a PhD. While it may be difficult to publish national data on enrolment, graduation rates, and employment of recent graduates, you have this information about your schools, and that’s the information we care about.

And because you have this information, it should be used to design better policies that help students in the long run. Why do you admit thousands of students to education programs when there’s an excess of teachers in most provinces? Why are doctoral students in some disciplines accepted in high numbers when there’s a shortage of tenure-track positions available? While higher enrolment means more money for the university, you aren’t doing students any favours by awarding us degrees in fields already flooded with workers.

Admittedly, you’re not all bad. Some of you have recognized these problems and designed policies to address them. And admittedly, these issues aren’t entirely your fault. The provincial governments and an absent federal presence in education policy are also partially to blame, as are administrative staff, professors, and students themselves. But you’re supposed to be the leaders in this failing group project. You can set policy that promotes better learning outcomes for your students.

I know you aren’t exactly rolling in the dough right now, and you’ve seen your financial support from the government dwindle in the last decade. What’s more, poor employment prospects for youth have driven up enrolment rates, as students pursue second and sometimes third degrees. But the key to making our education more worthwhile doesn’t depend on financial solutions to the problems.

What if you all worked within your provinces to create a more differentiated system of universities, specializing in the areas at which your institutions excel? If schools were differentiated by research-versus-teaching intensity, undergraduate-versus-graduate focus, or what special programs the schools offer, such as co-op or technical training, students could choose the school that best suits their career ambitions.

On the topic of technical training, creating academic-versus-applied streams in certain disciplines would be an effective way to ensure those students who wish to pursue a career in academia are gaining the knowledge they need, while students who hope to enter the labour market upon graduation can learn the skills their employers are looking for. Partnerships between local colleges and employers could help facilitate these programs.

If nothing else, supply prospective students with all the information they need to make their education decisions—and let that information guide university policy. Graduates will be best able to service the needs of the labour market if we can be confident we are earning degrees in high-demand fields, and program selection and admissions should reflect those realities.

At the end of the day, I know you care about us. These problems keep you up as late as our crappy closing shifts at the bar keep us up. I met Allan Rock, president of the University of Ottawa, last year, and by the end of our brief chat, he made it clear to me that he cares just as much as I do about the future of university education. You all do—how could you not? We’re your students, employees-to-be, and the future of this country. So please, don’t let another couple hundred thousand of us walk across the stage on graduation day without doing something to make our degrees worth more than the paper they are printed on.