By Emma Chamberlain

ooking at the way Canadian universities recruit new applicants, one thing becomes strikingly clear: they assume you’re after a job. It’s not an entirely wrong assumption. Most university students in Canada are studying in order to better themselves and further their careers.

However, treating education as training for a career is problematic. University education needn’t be dependent on a promise of employment. It would benefit us all if it wasn’t.

Carleton University, to name just one, boasts about its graduate employability ranking online. When considering Carleton, prospective students find themselves being assured that the university’s offerings will enhance their labour market potential. The notion of preparing students for work is deeply intertwined with the purpose of pursuing university education in Canada. No wonder students are using this as a marker for what program to chose.   

The European model structures university education as a means to help individuals gain knowledge, not train students as employees. University education should be a catalyst for the development of citizens, not cogs in the system of corporate profits.

Since 1990, the number of Canadian university graduates has doubled (Department of Finance Canada, Job Report). Employment rates, however, have not followed suit.

Employment is dropping and job vacancies are increasing, suggesting that it’s not a lack of openings causing this dilemma. If university is meant to answer all our employment woes then why are graduates less employable now than ever before?

Sceptics will argue that some career paths require the intense training that only a university course can offer. This rings true for some cases, such as medical careers. However it’s entirely possible to study medical science just for the sake of knowledge and not follow it though to a job. Maybe it’s time to consider that the degree itself isn’t just for employment purposes.

Take for instance most European universities — which coincidentally happen to be free in most cases. Typically students in European universities tend not to pick their course on the basis of its employment opportunities.

There’s hardly a mention of employment on the welcome pages of many European university websites. The University of Frankfurt advertises a mission for “Knowledge, with and for society,” the Technical University of Munich promotes “Sports, Music and Arts” and the Aarhus University in Denmark points to studying there as a way to “make friends for life.”

University for the European student isn’t always about training for a career; it’s about growing as an individual, a member of society

The European model structures university education as a means to help individuals gain knowledge, not train students as employees. University education should be a catalyst for the development of citizens, not cogs in the system of corporate profits. Most European Universities promote learning for the sake of learning and give the student the freedom to enjoy studying without being chained to employment.

Of course this doesn’t mean that one can’t then go on to use their knowledge and experience to develop a career. Instead graduates are able to choose courses that may not be directly linked to a job  — in liberal arts, for example — and not feel hampered with guilt as to how this will affect their growth.

Programs in universities such as Carleton are directed more and more towards training the next year of graduates into workers. Meanwhile, liberal arts courses are constantly scrutinised for not being ‘relevant’ enough.

In a desperate attempt to rebrand themselves as such, programs (such as philosophy at Carleton) advertise the skills they teach as being meaningful to ‘whatever profession you eventually choose.’ There are countless ways the academic pursuit of knowledge benefits society without contributing to employability, though.

For example, better historical knowledge can help us better understand who we are, address injustices, and make better decisions. The pursuit of pure knowledge in fields like science and philosophy is also an expression of human curiosity — of our drive to investigate and understand the world and ourselves. Knowledge is a human need and a worthwhile goal in itself.

Yet Canadian universities are so wound up on ensuring students are employed the moment they accept their certificate that they neglect the importance of having knowledge beyond what is applicable to labour.

With the cost of university tuition burning a hole in our pockets, we need to consider who is benefiting from this investment. Employers want an individual to arrive ‘day one ready,’ not someone who will cause financial burden on the company as they pay for the training.

More often than not jobs are advertised to individuals who have degrees tailored for the position. Gone are the days when a company would hire individuals based on their personal attributes and then, using company money, train them to be ready for the job.

Employers have a responsibility to train their employees. The burden should lie with them. But instead individuals — and the public, through government funding — are increasingly paying for this. Employment training is being disguised as university education.

Considering the promise of employment that universities give, it’s alarming to know that graduates are frequently looking to post-degree programs in colleges. In a desperate attempt to seem more ‘employable,’ university graduates are enrolling in college courses after graduating to give themselves a better chance in the ring of candidates.

Graduates are facing a harsh reality that university education may not give them a career, leaving many to doubt whether the program they’ve dedicated years of their lives to was really of any interest to them.  Studying at universities needs to return to its true meaning, to give knowledge and form people as individuals and members of society.

Changing the expectation of what university education can give is a progressive step towards seeing education become more than job training.

No good can come from measuring the success of a student’s time at university using only capitalist markers.

The European university structure is one Canada could learn from. Remove the implicit focus on employment and give students back their autonomy to study, learn and enjoy university.


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