Winning together

The ABCs of building a better society

For years, if not decades, various business and consumer groups, economic think tanks and lobbyists, firmly entrenched in the mainstream of national politics, have complained bitterly about the failure of Canadian universities to graduate cohorts of job-ready workers.

The economic costs of this putative deficiency, they continue to insist, are immeasurable: unacceptable levels of unemployment; low productivity; a dearth of commercially viable innovations; and the slow, steady unraveling of Canada’s competitive position in the world.

The main public-relations bulwark of their contention is that the general public agrees with them wholeheartedly. “Don’t just trust us,” they like to say. “Go ask your neighbor: Are universities doing the right job?”

Well, someone has done just that; and the results are, indeed, revealing, if not especially comforting to the highereducation skeptics among us.

Ottawa-based research firm Abacus Data recently asked 2,000 “neighbors” (in a survey, statistically weighted by age, gender, education, and region of residence) what they think of the job Canadian universities are doing to prepare new generations for the workforce. The overwhelming finding is, in a pithy paraphrase, “just fine, thank you very much.”

Here, in Atlantic Canada, for example, 75 per cent of survey respondents testified that they had a “very positive” or “positive” impression of higher education. Only 25 per cent felt “negatively” or “very negatively.” That says volumes, considering that functional, adult illiteracy in New Brunswick, alone, hovers between 40 and 60 per cent of the population. And the numbers are largely replicated across the country.

So, if the general public thinks Canadian institutes of higher education are doing the right job at the right time, what are Canadian think tanks and their private-sector confederates… well, thinking?

Is it not far more likely that those who are chiefly responsible for the condition of the job market (i.e. the corporate sector) are also far more responsible for its dissolution than are universities, colleges and polytechnics? Aren’t business lobbyists simply looking for scapegoats?

Higher education has always been an easy target for those who want to demonize learning and critical thinking as a means to distract elected representatives from the source of true culpability. Over the past decade, at least, this has become the routine of almost every policy consideration offered by almost every government in this country.

Make our universities more “relevant”, the argument goes, make them more “job-aware”, make them more like us. Yup, let’s just blame Mr. Chips, as fiends like Donald Trump hide behind the corner to mug us as we pass by, clutching our advanced degrees in our trembling hands.

Perhaps, this dystopian condition was inevitable. We broke the world a few years ago by allowing the corporatists among us to get away with economic murder. These villains managed to drain our bank accounts before they came back for more bailouts from our governments, which, again, bought their brand of bull about how the “quality” of the employees they were getting from universities was largely responsible for the financial meltdown.

It’s not true, but even if it were, we in our democracy can turn the tables if we only realize that higher education does not serve the money mill; rather it should be the other way around. Instruct well and roundly in the disciplines of ethics, philosophy, math and sciences. In so doing, require the corporate sector put its money where its famously big mouth is.

Demand that it, for once, not complain about the daily problems it disingenuously blames on universities and, rather, gaze into the mirror of its own mistakes.

Demand that it invests, through targeted taxes – with no temporary, vaporous, market strings attached – in nimble intellects at this country’s universities, those who could build and maintain a truly productive, competitive and civil society for everyone.

After all, no mind is more job-ready than a cultured one.

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