Eric Sager Photo

Bashing students and universities in the search for job training

By Dr. Eric Sager, Department of History

Training is "for the world of work", according to the BC Labour Development Board, in its Training For What? report in November 1995 to the Minister of Skills, Training and Labour. The report argues that the entire learning system in B.C. should strive for "greater relevance" and emphasis on "employability skills."

It's easy to understand why such ideas are popular today. Unemployment remains unacceptably high, especially among young people. We all want to see a high-skills, high-wage economy with jobs for everybody, and I certainly agree that knowledge and skills are critically important in our fast-changing economy.

Unfortunately the report is seriously flawed. The authors betray astonishing ignorance of a major part of our public "learning system" ัthe universities and university colleges. Had the board paid attention to what goes on in universities, university colleges, and university transfer programs, they would have found a major source of "employability skills." The report borrows its definition of employability skills from the Conference Board of Canada. These skills include "academic skills"ัthe ability to communicate, to write effectively, to think critically and logically, and to use information systems. Employers also desire personal management skills, initiative in getting tasks done, and teamwork skills. All of these are skills which academic programs are designed to foster.

So what does the LDB report recommend? The opposite of what you would expect: it recommends a re-allocation of resources away from those general academic skills and the institutions which foster them. It recommends shifting students and resources towards "applied programs," meaning programs offering skills required in specific occupations.

Applied skills tailored for specific technologies are quickly obsolete. The generic skills, including academic skills, are the ones which will best allow us to adapt to rapid change and become lifelong learners. The Economist (March 1994) makes the point very well: "The American tradition of providing people with masses of general academic education, including a start at university for half the population and plenty of second chances for everyone, and leaving specific training to the market, is becoming more, rather than less, relevant. Economists have long argued that the returns on general education are higher than those on specific training, because education is transferable whereas many skills tend to be job specific."

It's no wonder that university enrolments are increasing. People with university degrees are much less likely to be unemployed than people with college certificates or diplomas. The future job estimates in Training For What? show that job growth will occur in precisely those areas which require university degrees as well as college training: business, certain high-tech manufacturing industries, social services, education, health, science, and the arts sector.

The report ignores recent changes in our universities. "The universities are continually adapting their curriculum, teaching and research methods to deal with changing societal and economic needs," says Bruce More, President of the Confederation of Faculty Associations in B.C. "Co-operative education programs, case study techniques, and university-industry partnerships have been features of universities for many years."

We must also remember that universities do not simply serve labour markets. Universities work best when they create and transmit knowledge rather than specific skills. The entire learning system depends on its access to the best of the world's knowledge in the sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities. As Elizabeth Cull said last fall at UVic: "My government's vision of education starts from the premise that education is more than just a job ticket. It is the fundamental means to a civilized, caring, democratic society that knows enough about its social and physical environment to be able to sustain itself." All parts of the education system require public support. We know that cutbacks in federal transfers mean that tuition fees will rise, but the Minister might remember that universities have already made significant contributions to deficit reduction (a 20 percent decline in operating grants per student over the 1980s, for instance). The first priority should be a student loan and grant system that will ensure access for all who are qualified. And let us hope that the Minister will listen to all stakeholders before he beggars one part of the education system to support another.

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