Should universities focus on producing skilled workers?

Has your university been suffering from constant budget cuts? I know mine has. It seems like every year for at least the past three, our department has been required to implement a 3% budget cut. This ends up being much worse than just removing 3% sounds, because this money can only be cut from certain areas of the budget, which invariably means that we have had many valuable people let go from our department. And our department has definitely suffered.

I actually feel really bad for our dean, because he took the position about the time these cuts started getting put in place. And so each cut, each position lost, each service we remove has been blamed on him. And it’s really not his fault. He’s had to make these decisions with a lot of constraints on his options. It’s just a tough place for everyone involved.

According to to this article from the Globe, the new round of cost cutting at Canadian universities is going to start looking a lot more Americanized. What does this mean? That instead of just doing a straight cut across the board, that universities will instead focus on what departments are performing best and dole out money accordingly. The ‘logic’ or reasoning behind this, is that universities aren’t producing the skilled workers that businesses demand, and that money should be given to departments who are meeting this ‘requirement.’

I put requirement in quotes, because if you go back in history, universities weren’t about producing skilled labourers. They were about expanding peoples knowledge in a wide variety of areas. Universities today seem, in my opinion, way to focused already on narrow paths of success. And if you talk to many students, they will often complain about having to take any courses outside of their major. I think this is a shame, and the one piece of advice I tell all knew students, is to take as many courses in as many areas as possible, especially at the beginning. High school is not a great way to learn about all the possible subjects you can study once you read university, and the only way to really find out what you’ll enjoy, is to test out the courses. Some you’ll hate, and some you’ll love. But it’s unlikely you’ll walk out of any of them without learning something.

I worry that putting the focus on which departments are “producing” is missing the mark completely. And it’ll likely end up unfairly removing funding and people from departments like the fine arts. If we want to focus on higher education as being about learning about the world and everything in it, we can’t also choose to only select some areas as worthy of study.

Trade schools have traditionally been the direction of study one takes if they want to become a skilled worker in a specific area. And there’s no reason that both university and trade schools need to overlap now in this area. I think we should let trade schools continue to focus on specific skills and work towards turning university back towards the original goals of producing people knowledgeable about many areas.

In computer science, I notice this disconnect. We seem to put a lot of students through four years of higher ed only to become a basic code-monkey. If all someone wants to do is learn how to program, university should not be the correct path. We need people who will spend their lives programming, but not all of these people need the four years of theoretical background a university degree provides. We also need people who will expand on the theoretical background and delve deeper into computer science (these are some of our future graduate students after all). What we don’t need, is to have all of these students attend the same type of school and receive the same type of education.

So, to finish, before blaming universities for not producing skilled workers, let’s take a look back at what universities are meant to do. And, even though I didn’t get to it above, let’s not forget the responsibilities of companies to actually provide some on-the-job training as well. It’s unrealistic to expect that all applicants will have real-world experience with your business’ exact set-up, especially if it’s unique to your company.

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