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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2000

Job Success Poor Basis for Funding Universities

D.W. Livingstone
Recent initiatives by the Ontario and Alberta governments to tie post-secondary funding to how many graduates quickly get jobs may be well-intended but they are seriously misguided.

First and foremost, they misdiagnose employment gaps as primarily an educational problem rather than an economic one. Second, they assume that we can accurately predict future job market needs in particular technical specialties. Third, such performance-based approaches assume that employers of post-secondary graduates are mainly interested in narrow sets of technical skills rather than advanced critical and creative thinking skills associated with a more general education.

There is unquestionably a large education-jobs gap in this country, but little of this is due to educational deficiencies. Shortages in particular specialties and occupations make headlines – last year computer specialists to fix the millennium bug, this year teachers to replace the coming wave of retirements. But these educational bottlenecks are not responsible for the main problems with our economic performance.

In spite of the recent employment upswing, the official unemployment rate sticks at around 7 per cent because a huge army of previously discouraged workers keeps trickling back into the job market. The average unemployment rate remains much higher than it was in the 1945-75 period even though Canadians are now much more highly educated.

The number of adequately trained part-time employees who want full-time jobs but can't get them is now more than a million. Employed workers who are overqualified for their jobs in either credentials or actual competencies on the job may make up more than half of the active labour force. The basic problem is not lack of education but lack of enough good jobs.

By the most basic measures, Canadian educational institutions have been highly productive over the past generation in spite of reduced government funding. Canada now leads the world in the proportion of young people who attend and graduate from post-secondary institutions.

Contrary to views in some quarters, Canadian schools have produced an increasingly literate population. More than 75 per cent of Canadians under the age of 35 can read and interpret complex texts compared with only about 33 per cent of those over the age of 55.

In actual skills and competencies, Canadians are exceptionally well prepared to work in the much heralded knowledge-based economy. While education can always be improved, Canadian employment problems cannot credibly be blamed on any general educational performance deficiency.

A recent national survey indicates that Canadian adults are increasingly involved in informal learning activities outside educational institutions, now averaging about 15 hours a week. Approximately 33 per cent of those over the age of 18 are enrolling annually in some form of adult education. Demand for advanced training has never been higher.

Certainly continuing tuition fee increases are a growing disincentive for those from poorer family backgrounds. But there is no evidence that either the larger and larger debt loads that students are taking on or chronic underemployment of many graduates is reducing the demand for general advanced education programs.

Tying education funding to immediate employment will neither nurture nor prevent continuing growth of this "learning society." The track record of educational systems, governments and even businesses in accurately predicting training shortages in specific job areas in free market economies is dismal. Given this record, it is surprising to see such free market advocates as the Alberta and Ontario governments so keen to experiment with central planning.

Initiatives to address immediate skills shortages in specific fields – such as computer science, electrical engineering, school teaching and radiology at the moment – are periodically necessary. But job skills are perpetually changing and employers, employees and the unemployed are continually involved in formal and informal training activities to keep pace. To expect educational institutions to provide these specific skills for instant employment is to fail to comprehend the rapidity of these changes and the effectiveness of these decentralized responses.

While governments of any stripe must continue to intervene in response to shortages in key fields, the "tied" approach which links post-secondary funding to graduate employment in general is likely to be counterproductive. This tied approach to funding serves to undermine educational institutions' far more important basic purpose of providing a broad enough advanced education in critical and creative thinking skills and general fields of inquiry for their graduates to cope with whatever future specific skill demands they may face as workers, consumers and citizens.

The solution to the education-jobs gap won't be found in attempts to tie advanced education more tightly to employment and discourage pursuit of more general education. All Canadian governments should put much more concerted efforts into community-based and highly accountable job creation programs to stimulate fuller employment for our highly educated workforce.

For governments to become preoccupied with micromanaging our educational systems for specific, short-term labour market shortages is a recipe for both continuing underemployment of the most highly educated labour force in the world and longer term economic failure.

Dr. D.W. Livingstone is head of the Centre for the Study of Education and Work at OISE/UT and author of The Education-Jobs Gap: Underemployment or Economic Democracy (Garamond Press).