No one knows how to break higher education’s impasse

A society afflicted with credentialism. An education system hooked on numbers. A country where students amass mounds of debt in the hope that a job lies at the end of the rainbow of being in school.

You could think of it as a zombie situation, where the life that’s going on is only apparent. But better, perhaps, to think about what it means for you (or your children).

Two interesting news pieces came by this week to highlight the subject. The latest was Justin Trudeau’s call for Canadian participation in higher education to increase. He wants to see us go from 50 per cent to 70 per cent (also known as “spend more on higher education”).

At 50 per cent, Canada is already the world’s leading light for the number of its young people in higher education. Despite that, we’re having no end of problems finding jobs for all those graduates. Is it possible that it’s the sheer ordinariness of a degree these days that’s making it hard to find work?

The earlier piece this week was an hour on TVO’s The Agenda, where various thinkers and academics discussed the future of higher education. Spending an hour viewing this is well worth your time: just remember to keep adding $6,000-7,000 (plus living costs) per year as an undergraduate and $8,000-12,000 (plus living costs) per year to graduate studies as you add up the bill for what’s discussed.

(Your mileage may vary, of course: American educations will cost more, Québec ones less. But, in any Canadian province, it’s a pretty good deal for Canadians to go to higher education — far less expensive than it would be to study elsewhere. My daughter paid £11,500/year ($18,000) plus living expenses to go to school in the UK.)

Then listen again to these academic speakers, and ask yourself how sure you are, after listening to them, that they have any clue how the programs they offer really connect to the job market.

For, behind the scenes, in enterprises, credentialism has taken over the job specification.

It’s a quick way, frankly, to stem the flood of résumés and channel most of them directly into the bit bucket. Specifying various degrees, certificates and industry credentials on a job specification allows a computer to scan the electronically-submitted CV quickly and dispose of any that lack the specified programs.

That increasing the required credentials also — given the way job evaluation for pay grades works in most organizations — allows for a higher grade to be assigned and thus keep the position “current” in the labour market even though pay bands have not kept up with competitive salary gains is a win for the organization and its management stack as well.

(You see this even in academia, where clerical positions in faculties and departments require specific Master’s degrees — irrelevant to the work, but allows for the position to be graded and the Dean’s salary to be set accordingly.)

Therein lies the rub, when choosing a future as a student. How will — several years from now — the twists and turn of pay grading and résumé submission combine to produce a collection of letters after your name just to be considered?

No one really knows, of course. There are too many independent decisions being made. It’s a risk management exercise on possible outcomes far more than it’s anything that can be determined with security.

Meanwhile, even as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other educational innovations rot out the “stack ’em to the rafters lecture hall” model of higher education, universities and colleges remain hooked on the flow of dollars that surround the educational model we have. To them, you, as a student, are at best a “customer” and at worst a “money bearing problem”.

All the Canada Research Chairs, innovation funds, and other transfers to increase Canadian higher education of the past three decades haven’t changed any of this. When a department gets a Canada Research Chair, the money that used to pay that professor’s salary and costs just gets reallocated. Lose the chair, and the department goes into a financial tizzy. The net result is that many of the over 80 professional masters’ degrees out there (this is the number at the University of Toronto, as reported by Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Misak in the TVO piece) reside on a thin reed of “keeping that money flowing” — both students and federal monies to subsidize the place.

What this means for you is that your journey through paid education isn’t just a voyage of self-discovery (what undergraduate education was originally supposed to be, back when as a society we still valued the humanities), but, if it’s financed by student debt (or parental debt to support it) a gamble you have to get “right”.

You must, in other words, do your own personal due diligence. Let us help.

For your education isn’t just about the diploma at the end. It’s about the opportunity costs involved in your choices, and the burdens you put on your future.

2 thoughts on “No one knows how to break higher education’s impasse

  1. brucem123

    Higher ed as described here is patently a scam, or perhaps a Ponzi scheme. I also think that you have it right. What I don’t understand is how long this thing can go on before imploding. Given that higher ed is routinized and institutionalized, it is set for the long haul, maybe fifty to a hundred or more further years. However, the goods intrinsic to Education (think Alasdair MacIntyre) will continue to be needed, and sought, and provided, and paid for, and will probably find a new set of outworkings. I recommend the book Predicting the Behavior of the Educational System for a prescient take on all this.

    1. Bruce Stewart Post author

      Thanks for the book recommendation. There are others who have also called what’s going on in higher ed a Ponzi, and certainly if you look at the role of student debt in trying to reflate the economy in the United States since the financial crisis of 2008 it looks that way. (A good chunk of “growth in credit” has been new student debt, which, in the US, also can’t be bankrupted out of existence.)


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