Reading & Reacting: Universities should educate – employers should train

Image: Victoria University at the University of Toronto, St. George Campus

Victoria University at the University of Toronto, St. George Campus. (JENNIFER ROBERTS For The Globe and Mail)

By Max Blouw @ The Globe and Mail

A commentary from north of the border that could easily have been written by an American professor, Max Blouw makes a good case for what universities should and should not be doing. I would extend his central thesis, arguing for a liberal arts tradition, to include all schools, with the possible exception of alternative and vocational varieties.

With the recognition of unknown demands of an ever-changing world, this paragraph gets at his point most directly.

Universities are not, and should not be, in the business of producing “plug and play” graduates – workers who can fit immediately into a specific job in which they will spend the rest of their lives. Rather, universities must provide the kind of broad intellectual and personal development that enables graduates to thrive in a world that is constantly changing, a world that demands innovation and adaptability, a world in which they will change jobs frequently between the time they enter the work force and the time they retire.

Universities by definition are not vocational institutions. However, as universities have shifted to an increasingly corporate mentality, in some cases practically becoming banks, priorities have been muddied. With always rising costs for attending, is it any wonder that their new “customers” or “clients,” formerly known as students, want a greater sense that their credential will lead to a proper means for repaying the crushing accrual of debt?

Still, Blouw presses his point and gets it right, in my opinion.

Universities are primarily in the business of positive human development. They focus on enhancing the abilities of our graduates to communicate clearly and effectively, to analyze, to confront ambiguity with clear methods and confidence, to break down problems into manageable parts, to think critically and to question deeply.

That should be the goal of any K-12 system too, not limited to higher education. Moreover, when that goal is achieved, I would contend that everyone benefits – the students, the employers, the society.

Blouw gets it right again in his assessment of the business world. Developing human resources and training are costly and, in a simplistic view, cut into profits. He summarizes the problem.

But in the modern workplace, more and more employers seem less willing to invest in training new staff. Instead, they call on universities to tailor curriculum ever more precisely to meet specific workplace needs, and routinely advertise for candidates with two or more years of experience in hopes that another employer has prepared a young person for the demands of the workplace.

This is another symptom of how corporations have been trying to privatize profit and socialize losses. If someone else can absorb the associated costs of training, the more immediate, short-term benefits an employer enjoys. In a business world where executives are primarily interested in quarterly returns of course they call on educational institutions to do the dirty work. Additionally, this helps explain, at least in part, why the United States Chamber of Commerce ballyhoos the Common Core State Standards and its hollow but innocuous promise of promoting “college and career readiness.”

I only wish Blouw would have hammered more aggressively, however, is that in the long run, everyone loses when business, education, and governments fail to recognize and invest in their respective roles, without blurring the distinctions.


Image: iPad

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