Blame Unemployment On the Job Market, Not Universities

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This article, by OCUFA President Kate Lawson, originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

The idea that universities are somehow not doing what we want them to do has become a popular trope in the editorial pages. To hear some columnists tell it, Canada’s universities are stuck in the past and not up to the labour market challenges of the present.

But is it true?

Universities have indeed been around for a long time — something like 925 years. And in the Internet age, there is a tendency to view anything older than Facebook as stodgy and conservative.

But this kind of thinking is a mistake. The remarkable durability of the university is the result of its ability to adapt to changing social, political, and economic realities. As nation states grew, universities were transformed from Church-run to secular institutions. As the Industrial Revolution remade the world, universities began to educate engineers and produce the research that would feed phenomenal economic growth. As demand for higher education exploded in the years following World War II, universities quickly shifted from elite institutions to places of mass learning. And now, the university is adapting itself to the information age. Cautiously, perhaps, but you don’t survive for centuries by rushing to embrace novelty for novelty’s sake.

After nearly a millennium of growth and change, the modern university does a lot of things. It discovers new knowledge and expands the boundaries of human understanding. It solves real-world problems. It educates people, citizens, and leaders. And yes, the university is quite good at training people to succeed in the workforce.

But the one thing universities can’t do is perform magic tricks. Communities across Ontario and Canada are struggling with unemployment, the long hangover of the 2008 financial crisis, and deep structural changes to the Canadian economy. People are rightly concerned with why joblessness is so high, and how to get people back to work. Given their important role in educating people for the labour market, it is not surprising that the conversation should include universities. But universities can’t create jobs out of thin air.

And yet some pundits are quick to blame our institutions of higher learning for unemployment. All of a sudden, universities are doing a poor job preparing students for work. We are told that they need to do a better job meeting the needs of employers and the economy. These claims, however, routinely ignore evidence that both employers and graduates continue to find great value in a university degree. More to the point, the much lamented Canadian “skills gap” may in fact be a chimera. Economist Don Drummond “hasn’t found a shred of credible evidence that Canada has a serious mismatch between skills and jobs.

If today’s graduates are struggling, it is not because their degrees became less relevant, or because universities have somehow dropped the ball. Rather, it is because jobs are harder to get. We don’t have a university problem in Ontario and Canada, we have a labour market problem. Universities didn’t cause unemployment; the economy did.

Of course universities should look at ways to improve the education they provide; things can always work better. But the emerging tunnel-vision around binding universities to narrow labour market outcomes devalues all of the other, equally important work that a university does. Research that cures disease, improves lives, and explains our world. Community engagement that builds understanding and prosperity. Education that prepares people for lives as citizens, thinkers, and creators – not just workers.

If someone tells you that the only reason universities exist is to train people for jobs, that person does not understand what makes a university great. The multiple social, economic, and individual roles of universities has allowed universities to survive wars, dictators, and economic catastrophe. They have also generated the innovation and discovery that has helped build the world around us. Ironically, the observers who claim that universities are behind the times will take away all of the things that make universities timeless.

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