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The supposed failure of student choice


In this week’s post I’m going to stay with the subject of media and higher education, since there’s so much to work with at the moment – ‘tis the season, as they say. Since I last wrote, there’s a new, strategically-timed CIBC World Markets report that has garnered a good deal of media coverage, because it essentially claims that the value of university degrees has declined and that there are radically different “earnings premiums” on different fields of study. The humanities and social sciences of course end up lower in this hierarchy of profit than engineering, commerce, and health-related fields.

There are a lot of points that have already been made in other columns and blogs, so I won’t repeat them (Léo Charbonneau has a selection linked in his own helpful post, here). Instead I’ll just take a some time to focus on one of the issues that I had with this report, or at least with the coverage of its contents.

Whenever political, economic, and social problems are being discussed in the news media (or pretty much anywhere else), people will tend to look for a place to lay the blame – because that’s how we find (or at least propose) various kinds of solutions: by determining where things must be “going wrong”, and proposing an intervention. This is why there’s a need to be skeptical about the assumptions put forth in any argument about crisis in the present and the kind of (often “urgent”) action required to remedy it. The diagnosis tends to be a platform for the promotion of a particular cure.

To return to the CIBC report and the media coverage of it, here are some quotes about the source of the problem being debated:

“…degree holders fall behind in the earnings scale”, which is “largely the result of the programs Canadians have chosen to study” (CIBC, Newswire).

“Despite the fact that it is well known that certain degrees pay more in Canada, there hasn’t been any sort of gravitation towards those degrees among students to match the job market” (Financial Post).

“Plus, more women are choosing to pursue post-secondary education – and females are “disproportionately represented” in arts and social sciences” (HR Reporter).

“…experts are warning that young people aren’t making the educational choices that will allow them to step in [when Baby Boomers retire]”; “Many have arguably been victims of poor advice, encouraged by their parents and high school teachers to follow their whims and passions instead of making realistic career plans for a difficult job market” (National Post).

“….it is crucial to Canada’s economy that we start producing more graduates in growth areas of the economy” (CIBC, Newswire).

That’s right: the blame is being placed primarily on students (perhaps especially women) for making poor choices about their education. If students continue to choose the humanities over the sciences, for example, they can expect poor “returns” on their investment in education, because humanities degrees don’t “pay”. This in turn exacerbates the “skills gap” and affects the success of the Canadian economy, hence the complaint voiced by Rick Miner that “We’re letting a bunch of 17- and 18-year-olds dictate our labour market composition, and they’re not given a lot of advice to make decisions about what might be in their best interests.”

But what else should we expect from those teenagers, when they’ve often been encouraged to see education both as a costly commodity and as a route to a job, without being given any guidance as to how this translation/transition from education to employment actually happens? Even with advice, do we expect young students, or even their parents, to be perfectly informed consumers when it comes to selecting their degree program? Do we expect students’ decisions over a four-year period to reflect this level of information – and who is providing it? Are job market prospects the only factor affecting students’ choices, or are grades, advice and steering, geographic location, and expense, factors as well? Does the job market remain static for four years, and if not, can governments and universities successfully predict its fluctuations? Apparently “[i]n the absence of reliable data, labour market experts encourage students to do their own research in fields they’re interested in” (National Post). But even if they all believed that education should be solely about getting “the biggest bang for [your] buck”, they’d have a hard time finding the necessary information to predict the future of the job market.

We’ve seen all this before in past coverage, but now the argument has returned, full-force; the CIBC piece merely feeds an existing myth, one that also meshes with (and takes momentum from) the ongoing debate about Canada’s “skills gap” and the question of the “value” of humanities and liberal arts education.

As Kate T. Lawson argues, “one thing universities can’t do is perform magic tricks”: they can’t “fix” the economy, or eliminate inequality, or somehow solve problems that are rooted in multiple facets of society, simply by producing the right kinds of graduates or research. The bizarre situation in which we find ourselves is one where it apparently makes sense to increasingly privatize the cost of education, then expect students to make “choices” that are for the larger (public?) good in terms of the economy and the job market. When students resist or fail to follow the supposed path to economic success, perhaps we can just fall back on the narrative about “Millennials” being more interested in “saving the world” than in saving to buy a new home – it’s their choice, after all.

If student choice is the problem, then the “solution” becomes an issue of steering students in the right direction and expecting universities to produce them as candidates who match the jobs available. But education is only partly about choice for each person, and those choices are only part of the ultimate “outcome”. As with many other things in life, we make decisions within parameters, and the art of prediction is not yet and has never been as finely honed as we’re encouraged to believe. Expecting students to master it and to become fully responsible for their own “outcomes” is unreasonable, and also conveniently obscures the myriad other factors at work.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Heather Yaxley / September 12, 2013 at 3:48 am

    Some interesting thoughts. I’ve been discussing issues around transition of UK University PR students to work recently and have a couple of observations:

    1. Increasingly such matters are centralised in careers services within Universities. One downside of this is removing the close connection that should exist between faculties and their students.

    2. Conversations with academic colleagues reveals that most think it is entirely up to students to be pro-active and know how to manage their careers after the University has prepared them for their first job.

    So either way, there seems a lack of real engagement with educating students on building lifelong career management skills.

    A second thought on your post is that there is an expectation that graduates are ‘ready-made’ when they leave University. So various industries do not seem to recognise that degrees are a foundation, but lifelong learning (and 50+ post-graduation careers) mean people need to be adaptive and adapted.

    Of course, some fields are specialist but are we really saying that we can only take people in their early 20s to work in these fields? Teaching for example has recognised the value of retraining those with wider life/work experience. Why can’t our engineers, scientists and other in-demand occupations look to those who perhaps have other skills and help develop more rounded people working in those fields. They might actually find this more beneficial than the traditional narrow group they have relied on in the past.

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