McGuinty-level postsecondary attainment rate too high, analyst says

Governments and postsecondary institutions are caught in a higher education arms race with no grasp on when enough education is enough, education policy analyst Watson Scott Swail says.

“When I hear governors, premiers, prime ministers and presidents asking for more, more, more [postsecondary education], my first question is why. Please show me the evidence we need more,” Swail, president of the Educational Policy Institute, a Washington, DC-based non-profit, said during a talk at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario’s (HEQCO) conference in Toronto Friday.

Swail criticized the U.S. Department of Education and other U.S. federal agencies that are pushing for a postsecondary attainment rate of at least 60 per cent in the United States, saying that quality of education needs to come before higher enrollments.

Since 2005, the McGuinty government has been funding its $6.2-billion Reaching Higher Plan and its goal of having 70 per cent of Ontario’s students completing postsecondary education, either at college or university.

According to a HEQCO report from earlier this year, Ontario already has a 61 per cent postsecondary attainment rate and is on track to reach 70 per cent before any other province.

“We are creating a lot of parchment in areas that we don’t need jobs [because] we don’t really have the connection or dialogue between labour, business, industry and education,” Swail says.

“By and large there is no conversation and that is insane, because higher education, whether you like it or not, is vocational.”

Swail is Canadian-born but spent the majority of his career in the United States, a country that, he says, is caught in an education crisis that will befall Canada in 30-40 years if postsecondary enrollment continues to grow without changing the way it prepares students for the workforce.

HEQCO’s conference “Learning to Earning: Higher Education and the Changing Job Market” brought together education stakeholders and policy-makers to discuss trends in the job market and the future of postsecondary education in Ontario.

HEQCO is an arms-length government agency of the Government of Ontario with a mandate to research and evaluate the postsecondary education system and provide policy recommendations to the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.

Former provincial education minister Janet Ecker, who spoke in a panel alongside Swail, said talent and skill gaps between graduates and what employers are looking for need to be identified.

Ecker also said the future of Ontario’s depends on “more collaboration between the industry that needs good, skilled people and the colleges and the universities and the training institutes that provide them.”

“The fact that there isn’t more of this conversation going on in a way that makes sense for both sides is a gap.”

Swail is distinctly critical of the bachelor’s degree, saying that because of its prevalence and the lack of job skills it provides, it has become nothing more than a filter for employers.

“If you talk to employers, why do they ask for a B.A.? Because it shows proof that [the candidate] can do something, and there’s enough of them out there that you can use it as a filter. But here’s the worst part: It’s not the B.A. anymore; it’s the M.A.”

Swail gave an anecdote about a research assistant he employs at the Educational Policy Institute. The woman has two master’s degrees, but he only pays her $40,000 USD because of the extraneous number of resumes he receives whenever he posts a position.

“Every time I put out a call for a new position, I get more resumes than I can handle. So how much is enough [education]? I think the real construction question is what can they do? I want that skill assessment. I want that competency base in every degree, especially B.A.s.”

The Ontario government’s Reaching Higher expansion plan included the creation of 15,000 new graduate spaces by 2011-12.

Ecker is optimistic that university-run programs such as co-ops and work placements can go a long way towards producing graduates with hard-skills that are in demand in the workforce.

Swail says these programs useful but are lacking because of the challenges they pose to traditional universities.

“They’re difficult to do and time-consuming to set up, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep on pushing for them.”

by Allison Smith

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One thought on “McGuinty-level postsecondary attainment rate too high, analyst says

  1. It’s curious that, as Ecker says, there is a widening gap in what skills students leave university with and what skills employers are seeking. The numbers are waning for Liberal Arts graduates; fewer and fewer are opting to study the ‘impracticals’ (History, English Lit, etc.), while the number of business & science graduates continues to swell. Assuming most businesses would prefer a potential employee to be trained in Excel rather than Modernist literature, this suggests that, in fact, students have never been better prepared for the work force.

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