Last night contract staff and teaching assistants at York University in Toronto voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action. Of course this has become a huge story and, as a York alumnus, it's been all over my news feed. I heard an unfortunate interview on CBC's Metro Morning with university president Mamdouh Shoukri. While the debate about contract instructors is legitimate, I feel that in large part the wider context of what is happening with universities is being relegated to the background. The changing role of university is what I'd like to address in today's post.
Universities have existed for roughly a millenium. During most of that time, their role remained rather constant: providing society's elite with tools to become critical thinkers, thus empowering those who revolutionised fields of study like philosophy. Most universities were places to study liberal arts - politics, anthropology, religion, and history. In the nineteenth century economics and sociology came into the fold.
The latter half of the twentieth century saw universities grow modestly as professional schools expanded. With this came, in my opinion, a conflation between university and job training - such that now it is considered a smart career move to go to university, even if it's not for specific training in one domain or another. Stundets are going to university at unprecedented rates. However, there is a great amount of dismay amongst university graduates (myself included in 2008) when there is no work, save for poorly paid internships, service jobs, or work outside their chosen field. What's worse is that graduates have been saddled with debt, often called good debt because it is supposed to help them in the future.
Seldom are we asking ourselves as a society: what should the role of higher education be? Whereas universities used to be a place of free exploration of the world around us (natural and human), they have come to be viewed as conveyor belts for employment - a fast track to success. Most students who go to university are doing so because they feel it is part of reaching up in obtaining better career options or earning potential. Universities, governments, media, and parents are all to blame for propagating educational inflation, a race wherein we protect ourselves from underemployment by seeking more and more formal schooling.
The benefactors of this have not been students, or even the economy. Look at any report from Stats Canada and you'll see that new graduates are largely underemployed or unemployed (and unhappy). I'd argue that educational inflation has really served the best interest of universities. As a sector, education has grown year over year for some time now. A good marker of university success is the number of cranes erecting new buildings on campuses across the country. Not surprisingly, this has led to the further transformation of universities not only into career assembly lines but also into places to party. In the United States there is a growing demand for universities to provide an attractive lifestyle: private pools, tanning services, and luxury accomodations on campus.
I think that a few changes should be made to the university model.
University should be close to free and more difficult to get into: While this may sound elitist, universities should not be accepting virtually everyone so long as they have money. Instead, there should be a greater emphasis on students entering university based on grades, community service, or affirmative action.
Universities shouldn't be marketed aggresively: I don't see any reason why university should be billed as better than other forms of career training. It'd be also helpful if universities weren't seen as conveyor belts for the job market. The added bonus of this would be that universities could ease up on their oft-sketchy relationships with the corporate world.
University should focus on independent learning and critical thinking: Students should be exploring the world around them through seminars, online forums, papers, and workshops - not in lecture halls with four hundred other students. University should be about developing abilities to reason and communicate, not to absorb information.
In Europe, where these values are closer to the norm, university attendance is low and there is not the same expectation that a degree will lead to employment. This also helps make post-secondary education more accessible. In most of Canada and the United States, tuition is prohibitively high (and rising) which prevents bright students who happen to be poor from going to school.
Ultimately, we have a lot to think about as a society when it comes to education. This is by no means an answer, but it is an attempt to start a conversation. Let's stop building up the university experience and leaving so many young people disappointed that there isn't a job waiting for them afterward.