My Conspiracy Theory: Is University the New High School?

Christine Overall, Professor of Philosophy at Queen’s U has sparked something of interest for me with her latest column in University Affairs entitled, “Intellectual Elite: University for the masses may be oversold.” It is a short, very intriguing article that caused all sorts of synapses to fire in my brain. The article asks  whether university education should be for everyone, because it didn’t used to be that way. To be sure, there were problems with the way it used to be, but there are problems with the way it is becoming too. The fundamental question, she says, is:

Should university education be primarily for the intellectual (not financial) and highly motivated elite, or should it be job preparation and certification for the masses? I don’t think it can be both.

As Dr. Overall said elsewhere in the column, times do indeed change. When my grandfather was growing up, Canada was still primarily an agrarian society; mostly rural, mostly industrial, mostly manual. Grandpa quit school in grade seven to take over the family farm. The point of schooling for him was to learn the three Rs, but not much more than that. When my parents were in school in the 1950s, a shift in the point of schooling had begun. Public high schools in Canada began to have an academic track and a skills/trades track. Rules about how old you had to be to be able to drop out of school were imposed. My dad took the academic track (Grade 13) and won a scholarship to Queen’s. My mom dropped out after grade eleven (one year beyond the minimum) to join the workforce at her local bank.

In the 1950s, there were two goals for keeping kids in school. One was to educate them, but the other was to keep them out of the workforce. The recent debate about proposed legislation in Alberta that will raise the minimum age of required schooling to 17 is aimed at doing exactly that – keeping kids out of the workforce.

Now when provincial governments say that 70 percent of all new jobs will require post-secondary education I begin to wonder what’s driving this. As the person in my university who is responsible for admissions policies, and as someone who is highly motivated by enrolment management goals, I look forward to increased enrolment as a result. It may be a little hypocritical for me to complain, but it appears to me that the goals of university education have shifted and the goals of the government may be shifting with it. For proof of that shift, one needs to look no further than the burgeoning growth of the number of universities in my own province of BC: five new ones in one year, plus another opening up this fall. I wonder then, who’s driving this shift. Are employers demanding this? Are there so many workers that competition for jobs is driving people to go to university to gain an competitive advantage? When’s the last time you heard anyone talk about someone being overqualified? Is that even possible today? Is the government driving this to help control the competition for jobs while at the same time increasing growth in government funded universities?

And why is there such a blurring of the lines between college and university models in Canada? If I worked at a college in my own province of BC today, I’d be very worried about being left in the dust as ever other school around me turned into a university (I’m waiting for a campaign slogan from Christy Clark, our new Premiere, that echoes the American slogan, “No college left behind”). If university education is the elite education in Canada, it appears everyone thinks they can be one of the elite.

Perhaps this is the ultimate in socialism; I don’t know. Either that or I’ve drifted into conspiracy theory…



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