Across the country, provincial governments are working hard to bring higher education into alignment with “labour market demands.” Universities, they say, must be more sensitive to the needs and appetites of the private sector. To this end, several governments have proposed new punitive funding models in order to pressure institutions into refocusing their efforts on job training.
For example, in a 2019 mandate letter addressed to Manitoba’s universities, Minister of Economic Development and Jobs, Ralph Eichler, wrote that “more alignment and collaboration” is needed between industry and the province’s universities “in order to meet the demands of our ever-evolving world of work.” Late last year, the Government of Ontario affirmed its commitment to “ensuring postsecondary institutions offer programs that align with labour market demands.” And a recent report on postsecondary education from the government of Alberta, “Alberta 2030: Building Skills for Jobs,” similarly declares that Alberta’s universities need to be “highly responsive to labour market needs.”
This great realignment should be of concern to the public, because it represents a concerted effort by provincial governments to redefine what a university is and the role it plays in society. Instead of institutions dedicated to free inquiry, creativity, innovation and the preservation of culture, universities are recast in government documents as “skills mills” that exist primarily to funnel people into existing job vacancies. More troubling still: our governments are seemingly unanimous in their belief that private companies ought to dictate educational priorities for our communities.
Industry’s enthusiasm for these programs is easy to understand. The promise here is that taxpayers will cover the costs businesses would otherwise incur in training their own employees. Government therefore facilitates a large transfer of funds from the public to the private sector, while simultaneously narrowing the horizons and prospects of our students. Instead of providing people — especially young people — with space and time to develop their unique capacities and discover their own ways of contributing to their communities, governments advocate for a kind of vocational assembly line, where an employer orders up a certain skill set, and the university hops to work, moulding students into ideal employees.
Private industry’s inability to hire people to fill specific jobs is a private sector problem, not a public sector problem. If certain businesses are finding it difficult to hire people for certain jobs, rather than asking government to reorganize and reimagine our higher education system, perhaps those companies should simply pay people more. Or, perhaps they should themselves invest money in higher education, for example, by subsidizing the tuition fees of their employees, so that they can acquire necessary skills.
Governments myopically focused on making universities more responsive to labour market demands should be asked to answer one simple question: should the public be responsible for paying for a private company’s job training? The public helps fund university education because the public benefits from an educated population in a variety of ways. University students develop talents and expertise that they then share as citizens, volunteers, community-leaders and parents. Some of them work at non-profits or even become public servants themselves. University education should be multidimensional, allowing students to develop a range of capacities and abilities. Our goal should not be to help companies fill specific job vacancies as quickly and as cheaply as possible, but rather to prepare students to lead full and meaningful lives, which include learning, work, leisure, family and citizenship. To base university curricular decisions around labour market trends is a disservice to students: it makes them more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the marketplace, and it places the interests of corporations ahead of the good of our people.
Governments talk a lot these days about wanting to hold universities more “accountable” and finding ways to measure performance. If governments want to do that, then they need a broader and more comprehensive definition of what success means in higher education. Whether or a not a student quickly fills a job vacancy in a field the current administration has prioritized is not an adequate measure of success. It’s a reductive and stultifying metric.
In a democracy, part of what we need universities to do is create friction with political power. That is why governments are consistently puzzled and bedeviled by the intransigence of universities — their unwillingness to comply with government initiatives, their insistence on teaching things that aren’t consistent with the agendas of people in power. Governments get frustrated with universities in much the same way they get frustrated with newspapers and the media, because institutions of higher learning do not exist to serve power, but to serve their communities, and — dare I say it — the truth. Universities are not economic agnostics; it’s just that the goals of universities are not as short-sighted as the goals of governing parties, because universities (typically) outlast governments.
Universities have been around for a long time. They are not focused on achieving short-term gains, but rather on long-term benefits for people and communities. Let us hope that continues to be the case.
Andrew Moore is an associate professor and the director of the Great Books program at St. Thomas University.