Head To Head: Post-secondary Education

February 2, 2012
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 4 minutes

Q: Is post-secondary education really preparing students for the workforce?

Wendy Chi & Amanda Mihoub Wright

McMaster Debating Society


Wendy: Statistics about what students are doing after university are painting a less than optimistic picture of the future of undergrads across North America. In many cases, recent grads find themselves in one of three scenarios: unemployed, working in a field unrelated to their education, or returning to school for another degree. As a result, students have begun to question whether the knowledge garnered during their time in university will translate to finding a career and performing well in it. Sadly, for a large proportion of students, it won’t.  At a certain fundamental level of the current system, this actually makes sense. Students often forget that most universities are, first and foremost, research institutions. Teaching undergrads is only a secondary function of these schools and a side job to professors.  What does this mean for students? Aside from the fact that their needs are not always a top priority, there is also an inherent bias in what they are taught that favours theoretical concepts over real world applications. Course content and skill development are presented from a research perspective because that is what professors do for a living. It’s no wonder that more and more people end up pursuing graduate studies, since that is the natural path to follow in a university setting.

Amanda: Wendy is correct when she says that a university degree no longer guarantees employment; however, I do not agree that it is a result of universities failing to teach workplace skills or the theoretical nature of university material. Rather, the devaluation of academic credentials is due to many other factors, such as the expansion of universities since the 1970s. Even though universities are geared towards research, students do develop skills that are necessary for workplace success and employment. Universities offer programs such as internships and co-ops with the explicit goal of fostering students’ workplace skills and to give them concrete, hands-on experience in the career field that they wish to pursue.  As well, universities simulate workplace settings; students learn that they must attend class for a certain amount of time in order to take notes and to succeed, they must respect deadlines or they will be penalized, and they must develop a certain level of skill in order to obtain their university degree. Most importantly, they learn that this must all be done on their own initiative, and that the responsibility for the quality of their work is theirs alone.

WC: I agree that internships and co-operative education programs can be an excellent way to supplement education with practical work experience. The problem is that at many universities, McMaster included, not enough students are participating in these programs. Enrollment in co-op programs is limited to only a privileged few students who can reap the benefits of the experience. In addition, the fact that the co-op schedule disrupts extracurriculars and other year-long commitments can be a major disadvantage to some. As for Amanda’s claim that university simulates a workplace setting, my answer is yes and no. Yes there is a certain structure to the university experience that translates to the workplace (deadlines, schedules, etc.) but is it enough? Although basic organization and time management are important, the relevance of other heavily emphasized skills, such as essay writing, conducting secondary research and test taking, is often limited to academia. It is equally important for students to acquire the interpersonal, communication and leadership skills that are prerequisites for success in the real world.

AMW: I agree with Wendy’s assertion that students need to acquire interpersonal, communication, and leadership skills in order to succeed in the real world. However, these skills can be acquired at university through the group work that goes on in classes, club membership, and involvement in student life. As well, a lot of the skills developed through school work, such as effective writing and communication skills, are actually very transferable and extremely important in many workplace settings. Students have agency, they are not simply passive actors, and they cannot expect to be guaranteed skills and abilities by simply attending a post-secondary institution. Students must actively work on their employability. Yes, there are not as many co-op’s and internships available to students as there should be, but that is not the universities fault but rather the result of the current economic climate. Choosing between club involvement and co-op may be a tough decision for some, but it is a sacrifice that students must be willing to make. It is a tough and competitive job market, but it is not solely universities’ responsibility to ensure that students are prepared.

WC: Amanda makes a good point that students have a role is seeking out their own personal development. However, that doesn’t change the reality that students spend years of their lives in school and thousands of dollars on tuition with the expectation that a university degree will make them better off in the job market. Although the transferable skills gained from group work and extracurricular involvement can help accomplish this, these activities usually come second to the independent study required to perform well in classes. Regardless of their autonomy and initiative, students can only operate within the constraints that the university places on them. Consequently, it is up to the faculty and administration to make changes if they want to produce graduates who are ready for the challenges of the workforce. Programs and services such as co-op, internships, career fairs, career counselling, and other workshops are a great start, but they have to be expanded to serve more students so that they are provided every opportunity to develop their employability.

AMW: A clear-cut answer to this issue does not exist. The current employment market requires an improved effort by both universities and students to increase the employability of students. Students need to be aware of the fact that a university degree does not guarantee them employment and take initiative to improve their own employability and transferable skills. Universities should also offer more career services and place more emphasis on the importance of employability to students; however, universities are a place of higher learning, academia and research and it is unreasonable to expect them to make students’ employability their main focus above all else. The devaluation of credentials has already occurred and it is unlikely that the times of merely having a undergraduate degree and obtaining guaranteed employment will ever return.

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