The challenges are many: high drop-out rates, inefficiencies, and employers unimpressed with many graduates’ abilities, write Ken Coates and Douglas Auld

By Ken S. Coates and Douglas Auld, June 26, 2018

Hundreds of thousands of Canadian students will graduate high school this month and embark on a hopeful and exciting, yet uncertain future.

The world of work is changing rapidly; jobs that promised steady incomes for people with little education beyond high school are vanishing due to automation, and even for many with more advanced degrees, the transition to full-time, well-paid and stable work is getting more difficult, and progression into adulthood more elusive.

The rise of advanced technologies, the introduction of mass digitization and artificial intelligence, the emergence of the gig and contingent economies, and rising global competition have the capacity to rewrite the foundations of work, business and the economy.

The country seems at times to be racked by career paranoia. The pressure is on, from governments, parents, and employers for Canada’s post-secondary institutions to deliver the skilled workers our economy will need.

There is good news. Our top research universities rank among the best in the world, our community college system offers broad access to post-secondary education, and our polytechnics continue to develop superb technical skills and career-ready graduates.

But the challenges are many: High drop-out rates at many institutions suggest that admission procedures and student support systems are less than adequate. There are inefficiencies, including excess space in the Maritimes and a shortage of spots in fast growing cities. A good deal of university research is disconnected from evident community interests. Employers are not uniformly impressed with graduates’ abilities.

It is a system (a term used very loosely) that needs to adapt, and one that faces constant demands. Students press for lower or free tuition. Faculty want more money and time for research. Governments want innovation and jobs. Employers want career-ready employees. And parents and their children want decent, sustainable, highly paid careers for graduates. Many of these demands and expectations are incompatible.

While governments face pressure to expand the post-secondary system, we believe the answer is not more institutions and more spaces.

The quality of the educational experience is being eroded by an over-reliance on part-time instructors, large introductory class sizes, and a reduction in admission standards at all but the elite institutions and high-demand programs. Our ability to understand the relationship between expectations and results has been hamstrung by inconsistent reporting and uneven standards across the country.

We should be focusing on high quality and market-ready educational outcomes. This will require some imagination, flexibility and coordination. Institutions should review their programs to determine how their graduates fit in to the evolving national and international economy, hopefully capitalizing on a much more robust workforce monitoring system than we have at present.

Guidance counsellors need to ensure that students and parents have access to realistic assessments of market demand, career opportunities and potential incomes so they can make informed choices about their study programs. Work experience has a proven track record for students, but the systems for such placements are becoming overloaded. Institutions need to be much more creative in making — not just finding — experiential learning options.

The federal government, provinces, territories and First Nations need to collaborate on the development of a forwarding-looking jobs strategy that is designed for a technology-driven economy and that supports Canada’s commercial aspirations.

Our post-secondary institutions, having over-claimed responsibility for the career achievements of the past, may well find themselves saddled with intense criticism for failing to provide young people with a reliable path into decent work. There is much to be done to ensure Canada’s young adults are truly career-ready in the mid-21st century concept of that term.

Ken S. Coates is a Munk Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Douglas Auld is an adjunct professor in the Department of Economics and Finance at Guelph University. They are the authors of the recent MLI publication “Performance Anxiety: Post-secondary education and the future of the Canadian work force.”

(Image credit: Sakeeb Sabakka/Flickr)