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Labour markets and universities

Made to measure.

By DOUG OWRAM | MAR 07 2011

From time to time, governments ask whether universities should tailor new programs to meet labour market shortages. It is an understandable question. Why do universities seem to be so slow to respond to shortages in supply, while persisting in turning out students with majors that seem to point only to under-employment?

Underlying the question is a range of implicit or explicit criticism about lack of responsiveness, lack of accountability and a sense of entitlement. On occasion, such concerns lead to more direct action. Governments will mandate changes in university spaces by offering targeted enrolment growth. Universities usually find the temptation of additional funds irresistible. Indeed, it has often been universities, hearing of government concerns for such-and-such a supply, that initiate a conversation about more money for more spaces in targeted areas.

Yet neither governments nor universities should be fooled. More often than not, the attempt to link university output to labour-market needs has proved an abject failure. There are two reasons for this.

First, labour market analysis is notoriously tricky beyond the very short term. Politicians, driven by competing demands and the election cycle, often make policy decisions that simplify this analysis even further. To give one example, at the beginning of the 1990s it was concluded that there was an over-supply of physicians in Canada. As a result, medical school enrolment was reduced significantly. Then, by 1999, reports began to discuss the shortage of physicians in Canada while politicians faced growing public unease about wait times. Governments and universities reversed course, pumping considerable amounts of money into medical school programs cut back only a few years before.

The second reason has to do with the cycle required to produce a graduate. Colleges and trades institutes are often portrayed as more responsive to market needs than universities. That is true, but it has much to do with program duration. Many apprentice courses run a semester or less. Thus, it’s possible to have an impact on the labour market in a year or two from the time the need is identified.

In contrast, the time to graduation in university is at least four years. Add two to three years from the time the need is identified until a program is funded, approved and launched. Now the gap between identified need (even if accurate) and first graduates can be six to seven years. That is a very long time in a labour-market cycle. In addition, such rapid expansion necessarily in–creases both demand and costs for good faculty. High salaries and tenure-track appointments mean that universities are committed for the long term to meet short-term demand.

Once again, the 1990s provide us with a good example of this problem. The rise of the Internet, dot-com companies and the threat of Y2K seemed to create an endless demand for grads in computer science and related fields. As a result, various provincial governments threw money at universities to expand such areas. Universities, reeling from cutbacks earlier in the decade, were happy to accept and even encourage the sense of urgency. All of the funding settled into place and all sorts of program expansion occurred – just in time for the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000. The results were predictable. Student applications dropped, those in newly expanded programs had difficulty finding jobs, and univer-sities spent years wrestling with excess capacity in the field.

Does this mean that universities and government should resist labour-market pressures? The answer is yes and no. Yes, when the proposed expansion responds to short-term shortages or straight-line extrapolations of short-term situations: universities serve society better when they focus on creating an educated student body with adaptable skills and strong critical thinking. On the other hand, it is arrogant to ignore underlying, long-term trends. The effects of an aging population, an increasingly multicultural society or an urbanized post-industrial workforce must all be considered as programs evolve.

The issue will not disappear. Both universities and governments need to balance responsiveness with a clear understanding of the difference between long-term structural change in society and short-term volatility. Universities can serve the latter by building new programs. The former is best served by ensuring all students have, as is often said, the ability to learn how to learn.

Doug Owram is deputy chancellor and principal of UBC Okanagan. He is also a Canadian historian and member of the Royal Society of Canada.

Doug Owram is deputy vice-chancellor of UBC Okanagan and a Canadian historian.
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  1. Dr.Doinglittle / March 10, 2011 at 18:45

    Another solution to the problem of overproducing unemployable graduates in some fields is to cut enrolments in areas with limited employment prospects. Canada simply does not need to produce hundreds of grads, particularly in the arts, who have no realistic hopes of finding related work.

    Caps are particularly needed at the graduate level. Too many depts are overproducing MA and PhD graduates, which does no-one any long-term good. The problem is only exacerbated by the fact that there are now many smaller and rural universities offering advanced degrees. These programs need to also be cut drastically since they produce graduates who simply cannot compete with ivy league degrees for the very few jobs that do exist.

  2. Rohan Maitzen / March 11, 2011 at 09:43

    “Canada simply does not need to produce hundreds of grads, particularly in the arts…”

    Except that programs in the arts do very well at “creating an educated student body with adaptable skills and strong critical thinking.”

  3. dr.doinglittle / March 11, 2011 at 16:18

    I wish that was the actual case but unfortunately it is not. I make hiring decisions in a non-university setting and we get a lots of university applicants, many with graduate degrees. They almost all state something like “adaptable skills, strong critical thinking, etc.” on their resumes. But very few ever score well enough to make it to the interview stage.

    The problem is, statements like that mean nothing outside of an academic environment. What any employer wants are people with applied skills and demonstrated ability, not just a diploma. There is a real disconnect between what kind of education is needed for the real world, and what is actually given by many depts.

    University thinking needs to change – not necessarily solely in terms getting new enrolments in some fields – but by doing a better job of making all degrees more relevant outside the university. Having practicums, coops, placement programs,etc. built into many arts programs would be a good start.

  4. university grrrl / March 15, 2011 at 16:19

    PhD programmes absolutely need to be capped!

    It seems crazy to talk about “labour market shortages” when there are so many (PhD) graduates unable to find work. In the humanities, this is a particular problem and the government exacerbates it by throwing big scholarships to encourage enrolment (I certainly benefited, but I haven’t been able to get a job — there was one in my field in Canada this year and I didn’t make the long lists in the U.S.)

    Why not fund a condensed MBA/internship programmes for all those underemployed graduates? Like myself, I am sure they’d be willing to transfer into the business or public sector, but need help to translate their specific academic skills to a non-academic setting.

  5. Zarko / March 24, 2011 at 07:49

    I concur that we are overproducing MAs and PhDs, nearly across the board and without a labour market to absorb them (prospects in academia are dismal, and even the “lucky” ones end up exploited in terminal sessional positions as they make up the 50% of the “flex” labour in the neoliberalizing of our institutions).

    Why are these graduate programs expanding? Simple reason: it becomes a jobs program. Not to produce jobs, but to validate managerial bloat, pull full time faculty off undergraduate teaching (where such labour is acquired for half that price with sessionals, and thus cost-cutting for the university), and to continue getting multiple dollars for every dollar it costs to keep a graduate student enrolled.

    In a curious way, it reminds me of Cardinal Richelieu’s system of the “quarante” (where we get the term quarantine). Except that in this case we are not providing sinecure positions.

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