Remember the time when all the Newtons and the Galileos and the Leibnitzes pursued a higher education not because it was a norm, but a passion? For broadening the mind, for enriching creativity and ingenuity, for performing triple integration in spherical coordinates for the pure joy of triple integrating in spherical coordinates…? No? Yeah, neither do I. Frankly speaking, I can’t remember the last time university wasn’t associated with “excessively long or boring classes,” “a stepping stone to get a job or get into professional schools,” or “a place to live far, far away from home and party all day.” Universities’ reputations have become tarnished. And yet, more and more students are eagerly applying for universities in the hope that it will prepare them for a career.
Ironically enough, the same voices that preach and praise about university education are the also the ones bemoaning that “nothing you learn in your undergrad will be useful to you later in life.” Let us rephrase what this dubious sentence actually means: uni sucks, except for when you get a degree and get a job. Ladies and gentlemen, a career is not a degree. And more importantly, a university is not an employment agency for fresh graduates.
Before we consider what a university actually is, or does, let us consider what a career is. A career is much more than just four years of training in a classroom. Getting a B.A.Sc. makes you an engineer no more than getting a political science degree makes you prime minister of Canada. Rather, a degree provides you with some of the essential qualifications necessary to pursue a career in a certain field. Moreover, as I’m sure we co-op students have heard for the umpteenth time, there are many facets of a career that aren’t covered by your university education: interpersonal skills, for instance, is not usually taught in schools.
However, the solution to increasing a student’s employability should not rest on the shoulders of the university. More and more students are expecting universities to provide them with career opportunities after graduation, but a lack of career opportunities is not the university’s fault. Rather, this line of thinking shows a disconnect between how students perceive university, and how universities perceive universities. The fundamental purpose of a university is to focus on learning: on the acquisition and dissemination of human knowledge. Furthermore, not only are universities responsible for gaining knowledge, they must also ensure that future generations have the ability to expand this knowledge—that is, to train researchers with the same, or greater, problem solving skills and research techniques as current staff.
It could be argued that plenty of other private institutions also carry out research to expand human understanding, and thus, a university might not be as important. However, private organizations do not nearly allow as much freedom in intellectual curiosity as would a university. All research in a private company must, directly or indirectly, help the company’s goals. However, in a university, professors have the freedom to research and explore their own areas of interest, provided, of course, they can acquire adequate funding. This is also the entire purpose of tenure—it’s not for the purpose of breeding lazy professors, but to protect their jobs and their research from the consequences of any socio-political controversy or backlash.
So if universities are just here for learning and you end up forgetting most of what you learn by the time you graduate, why are universities useful to students at all? The most obvious answer is: they’re not. University isn’t for everyone, and especially not for the person who’s thinking that a university is a free ticket to a career. There are plenty of other ways to enhance your career instead of going to a university. Students have the option of going to college, where the emphasis is less on hard academic knowledge and more on the application of such knowledge in a way useful to the workforce. Apprenticeship programs are also a great option, where the emphasis is not on theory and abstract ideas but on equipping the student with the technical training required to complete a task. In fact, with the recent rise of university-bound students and the subsequent decline in students pursuing skilled trades, an apprenticeship program may result in more financial and career success upon completion.
That being said, university does prepare you in the direction of career advancement. Going to university makes you more independent and self-sufficient. Unlike college education, university education has a greater emphasis on problem solving and on understanding the logic and the theory behind a problem. A farming apprenticeship program can teach you how to use a tractor but it won’t tell you how to make the tractor more energy-efficient or user friendly. Moreover, universities do provide a plethora of career opportunities for students who want to pursue research—where else would you get a conglomeration of the best and brilliant academics that the world has to offer?
Moreover, the one important piece of the puzzle we have yet to discuss is businesses’ involvement in your career. If you’re spending four years in university, but plan to spend the next forty years in a business, wouldn’t it make more sense for businesses to invest in your training and career advancement? I am assuming, of course, that businesses love ambitious and intelligent university graduates with adequate work-force experience as much as we do. So why aren’t businesses putting forth more effort into training graduates, into sending out recruiters, and providing useful sessions to improve the marketability of unemployed youth?
The bottom line is that education should not be a synonym to job. Education should be pursued for the sake of education, and in the same vein, educational institutions should seek to enhance students’ knowledge, not students’ careers. There are plenty of other organizations devoted to helping students find jobs. Learning should be left alone in the only place where it can be left alone.
(Besides, if Waterloo was any more career focused, just think of how many more PD/PDEng courses you’d have to take.)