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IN MY OPINION

What have our students learned?

It’s time to measure.

By HARVEY WEINGARTEN | October 11, 2011

Students spend years, families spend thousands, and Canada spends billions on postsecondary education. What are we getting for the investment? A bumper crop of students has again descended on Canada’s colleges and universities. What will they have learned by the time they graduate?

It’s time for answers to these questions because, while Canada has one of the highest postsecondary participation rates in the world, higher education of late is suffering a crisis of confidence in the minds of some. We have read many cris de cœur about the value of higher education, much of it emanating from those holding postsecondary credentials. Among the indictments: higher education is a high-risk investment with no clear payoff; it is misaligned with workplace skills; the liberal arts degree is an irrelevant investment in a technological age. The current malaise celebrates select postsecondary dropouts for their entrepreneurial bravado and prompts PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel to offer $100,000 to college students if they drop out of school and start their own companies.

The reality is that the great majority of tomorrow’s jobs will require some postsecondary credential. More and more students are flocking to colleges and universities because they know that the credential they get is their ticket to a better life and a better job. This is their reality and they have it right.

The views of postsecondary contrarians right-fully should lead us to examine in a more sophisticated way the relationship between higher education and personal and professional success. More to the point, what kind of education do today’s students need from our institutions of higher learning and what skills should these institutions teach and develop in their graduates?

Employers at all levels say they want employees who are critical thinkers and effective communicators, more reflective, better problem solvers, imaginative and capable of working in teams. These skills are attuned to today’s knowledge-based and complex economies and equip students to address challenges we cannot even anticipate today. Many postsecondary institutions claim that their graduates have acquired these skills. But, until these claims are backed up by measurement, they remain untested assumptions. Currently, we lack the evidence and rigorous measurement to know whether these critical job and life skills are being achieved.

Canada is in this measurement game but we are behind the U.S. and Europe in defining and measuring the skills and learning outcomes that students (we like to believe) have acquired from their college or university education.

In the United States, the Council for Aid to Education is improving quality and access in higher education through its Collegiate Learning Assessment, a national effort to assess the quality of undergraduate education by measuring students’ critical thinking abilities. The European Union is harmonizing higher education programs and degrees by defining learning outcomes. And the OECD’s Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes project is gathering data globally on the relevance and quality of teaching and learning in higher education as a tool for post-secondary institutions to assess and improve their teaching; for students to make better choices in selecting institutions; for greater government accountability; and for employers to know if the skills of the graduates entering the job market match their needs.

Canada’s postsecondary education systems are already held accountable to a variety of input and output measures such as entering grades, enrolment numbers and graduation rates. More recently, student satisfaction and engagement surveys have been added to the accountability mix. But there’s more work to be done.

The assessment of learning isn’t new. There has been interest in it as long as there has been education. But there is a growing need to demonstrate the value derived from public and personal investment in higher education, using rigorous methods that would convince a skeptic. Countries around the world are vigorously pursuing this issue. Canada needs to be part of these global initiatives.

History tells us that we are not very good at predicting the jobs of tomorrow, but we know what the baseline skills for success look like. Now we need to find out whether postsecondary students and the public purse are getting what they paid for. In the ongoing debate about higher education, we should be talking a lot more about what students learn and a lot less about who can get by without it.

Harvey Weingarten is president of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. He is the past president of the University of Calgary and a former provost and vice-president, academic, of McMaster University.

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