The Ontario Liberals announced this past week that they will be funding the expansion of graduate program spaces in specific career-related fields. As someone who has been watching graduate students in my home province floundering in programs pressured to admit more students than they can manage, I am alarmed by this latest example of political posturing. I wrote the following letter to Mr. Millory, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities. If you are also concerned, I encourage you to do the same by emailing him at email@example.com. Believe it or not, politicians do listen when someone takes the time to write to them.
It is with mixed feelings that I read about the $51.6 million you recently announced that you are funneling into Ontario universities. On the one hand, the 3,300 new spaces for graduate students in “high-demand” sectors like engineering and environmental studies is presented as a ‘good news’ story. You justify the expense by emphasizing the social benefits of investing in these fields:
“By helping more Ontarians pursue higher education, we can strengthen our economy and attract the kind of jobs and investment that will build prosperity for all Ontario families.” [Maclean’s, Feb. 27, 2009]
On the other hand, here is a huge chasm between universities and the job market that this announcement fails to address. Mr. Milloy, if this windfall of “highly skilled” graduate students is going to be able to find jobs that they wouldn’t have qualified for without their graduate degrees, they are going to need a whole lot more career support than is available to them now in Ontario universities. In fact universities across Canada typically suffer from the same myopic approach to funding decisions.
Don’t assume the universities have a handle on this Mr. Milloy – most have absolutely no recruitment programs designed for the types of jobs appropriate to graduates with two to ten years of graduate level training. Very few universities even have career counsellors and advisers experienced at working with students in PhD programs. Further, many faculty members in graduate programs are career academics with few if any industry connections. In short, Mr. Milloy, graduate students are too often left on their own to figure out how to get a job when they graduate.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Milloy, cutbacks to university funding are often being felt most strongly in student support services, like career centres. Not that they ever have provided much support tailored to the needs of graduates students. Size matters at universities, which means the largest student body, undergraduates, are the best served. Only in very specific fields like law, business and some engineering streams , do students graduate with a good understanding of where they stand in their fields, and what steps they need to take to get to where they want to go, career-wise. Even then, many slip through the cracks.
Opening up more spaces, without also working with universities and employers to address these problems is short-sighted. We need to provide transitional bridges such as internships and targeted recruitment initiatives. Without such support, we are creating the conditions for a “perfect storm” of highly educated graduates with a huge debt load, little, if any relevant experience, no contacts in their fields and no idea how to enter their chosen professions.
In other words, the current plight of many graduate students in many fields will be concentrated into disappointing outcomes for this group of graduates on which you have pinned so much. How quickly will your ministry respond when the current trends shift? Will you be able to continue funding the field du jour in time to prevent too many graduates in areas previously in-demand?
Our greatest brain drain Mr Milloy, is not losing our graduates to other countries, it’s wasting their potential in Canada by failing to support their transition into career paths that utilize their unique skills and interests. Policies based on the temporary whims of industry will exacerbate this problem, not solve it. Your investment won’t result in the future you promise if you simply make this about numbers and headlines and forget the realities in which these numbers have their significance.
I encourage you to take a leadership role in addressing this issue. You can provide a model for the other provinces on how to maximize the value of Canada’s brightest and most promising graduates Mr. Milloy.