What is university for?

Broad-based education to explore yourself and your interests, or in-and-out to get a good job?

To some, it’s a no brainer. You go to university to train for the career you want because you’ve already established what you want to do for a living. And you’ve been told that what it takes to get you there is a particular program at a post-secondary institution.

Susan Forseille wants to see students take the time to explore their academic surroundings and broaden their studies. (Mike Davies/The Omega)

Susan Forseille wants to see students take the time to explore their academic surroundings and broaden their studies. (Mike Davies/The Omega)

To others, university is a time for you to explore your options, find out who you are, and learn as much as you can from those who know more about things than you do. The career will come later, after all. Now is the time for you to find and broaden yourself.

So who is doing it right?

Trick question. There’s no right or wrong way to pursue an education. These are both good and valid reasons to become educated.

Susan Forseille, coordinator in the TRU career education department, however, wishes more students would take the time to explore their academic surroundings and broaden their studies while in university in order to better prepare themselves for the job market, rather than having a target and pounding their way through to get to it.

“I would rather have students be very open-minded when they come to school,” she said. Her advice is for students to take a variety of classes, join different groups and take different work experiences, because you can’t draw out in advance how your career will go.

“Usually the path I see with students is that they do something well in high school, and they’ll get that verbal support and they get told, ‘you should go into accounting,’ ‘you should go into welding,’ or ‘you should go into sciences,’ without really giving thought into ‘what are your values? What are your interests?’” she said.

She calls this approach to one’s education, “premature occupational tracking.”

“They come in and they’re very tunnel-focused,” she said. “They’ve picked from a handful of occupations that they know the titles of—which is quite limited, because the titles are always changing—and then they’ll think they’re doing an exceptional job because they’re following some preconceived linear path to their goal.”

According to Forseille, careers are never linear. What you’re interested in when you’re 17 is probably not what you’re going to be interested in when you’re 23, and will be completely different from what you want out of a career when you’re 30.

She should know. A large part of what she does for the university is tracking alumni as they progress through their careers.

Among those who followed the path they thought they needed, she said that they often don’t end up in their field at all, and that those who do are often less happy with the result.

Basically, according to Forseille, whose job it is to analyze employment due to education and help match people within that system using her findings, people may say they are going to post-secondary just because they want an in-demand job with security, but because what one does is so much a part of who one is, they end up in careers that, while possibly connected in some way to what they thought they’d be doing, they may have arrived at by a different route more quickly if they’d explored their options by discovering themselves through education rather than bee lining through school to get the piece of paper they thought they needed.

But what about skills training?

Mercedes Mueller, a student at the University of Ottawa, wrote an exciting and engaging opinion piece in May, 2013 for her school’s newspaper, The Fulcrum, in which she lambastes the university system for not giving students the job-specific skills in careers that are in-demand while they attend those institutions.

“Universities pride themselves on teaching students critical thinking and reasoning skills,” Mueller said in her article, “Yet upon entering the workforce, many grads have little to offer employers in terms of ‘skills.’ Skills, primarily associated with the hands-on learning done at colleges, are a severely lacking component of university curricula.”

Forseille, however, who is also a key liaison between industry and the university as one of the main organizers of the job fair each year, said that employers are telling her they’d rather train the specific skills of the job themselves to a prospective employee who has already developed the capacity to learn quickly, think on their feet, communicate effectively, and be self-aware enough to recognize strengths and weaknesses.

“Are we a factory just spitting out degrees and that’s where our job is done?”

Susan Forseille, TRU career education

And it’s not just businesses recruiting cubicle-dwellers who are telling her this. It’s companies like Shell, who recruit engineers and scientists, as well as industrial, resource-based companies looking for labourers and tradespeople.

“They’re looking at emotional intelligence and transferrable skills,” Forseille said, “and are finding they’re having much more success rates and much higher employability levels in those they hire when they go that route in their recruiting and hiring process,” instead of hiring based on technical training and job-specific skills already learned.

Associate professor Todd Pettigrew, of the University of Cape Breton, also addressed Mueller’s piece directly in his own editorial in McLean’s magazine, saying much the same thing.

“The danger lies not in too little practical and focused training, but too much. We should not fear a workforce that is too broad-minded but one that is too specialized. If we are not careful, we will career-plan ourselves into a nation that can’t adapt and create because we have only learned how to buy and sell,” Pettigrew said.

“The real betrayal,” Pettigrew said, “is not that universities have failed to make good on their promise to get their grads good jobs. The real betrayal is that universities, instead of explaining the profound value of what they have to offer, have been making the promise – implicitly or explicitly – that the basic point of university is to get people jobs.”

So what are institutions’ roles in this?

Perhaps Forseille asked the important question better than anyone else.

“Where is the institution’s responsibility?” she asked. “Are we a factory just spitting out degrees and that’s where our job is done… or are we going to be more enlightened to really support students in discovering themselves and understanding themselves more effectively?”

In a 2012 Globe and Mail article entitled, “Why university students need a well-rounded education,” various professors from all around the world, as well as professionals from industry, all chimed in on the side of broad-based education.

“I think,” said former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers, “increasingly, anything you learn is going to become obsolete within a decade, and so the most important kind of learning is about how to learn.”

The article surrounds the concept of specialization versus broad education models, and how the movement in academic institutions in the recent past has swung the pendulum towards the specialization side of the spectrum. According to most, it’s starting to go back where it should be. For years we’ve been hearing about getting job training rather than studying different fields of interest or studying for studying’s sake.

“Now, the tide seems to be turning,” the article points out, “with business leaders lamenting that, although the new talent arriving at their doorsteps has deep technical knowledge, it lacks the skills needed to put this knowledge to full use.”

The skills employers are lamenting being lost in people who train for jobs rather than to become educated, are ones like communication, problem solving, looking at things from a variety of angles, being a good cooperative team member, and so on. You know, the things that you develop in a general arts program.

Recently, Bill Gates took a room full of university business officers to task for their business model that sees increasing cuts to programs based on limited available funding being allocated away from those disciplines that don’t graduate high percentages of students or are not in “in-demand” fields.

Though the focus of his speech wasn’t the promotion of broad-based learning, but rather the changing business model of post-secondary education itself, his remarks could be seen as telling in terms of what he sees the value of education being.

“He described as ‘oversimplistic’ the view that higher education is ‘just about getting a job with a certain salary,’” according to the article at Inside Higher Ed, an online resource of all things post-secondary. “‘Citizenship, developing deeper understanding, other things, are all important,’ he said.”

Most would consider Bill Gates to be one of the great minds of our time.

The pendulum

The pendulum of post-secondary education, its goals, and those of those it serves (both students and industries who need them), according to Forseille and others, swings back and forth in an attempt to find some mysterious and elusive ideal.

While the goal of the institutions used to be to create an educated populace who could think for themselves, participate intelligently and actively in their society and adapt to changes within it, it’s almost like the pendulum has swung too far the other way as of late.

Forseille said that, “Increasingly, [students are] ignoring knowledge acquisition as the purpose of university and there’s more conversation about getting a job – it’s all about getting a career,” and the institutions have been playing right into that narrative and preconceived goal, by focusing on jobs training rather than intellectual and emotional development.

Treat your education as your foundation from which you can find your best fit in the labour market, she advised, rather than trying to shoehorn yourself into a job by taking the training you think (or are told) it will require.

“We need to change the culture of education, where people enter a certain program in order to attain a credential in order to go into a certain field,” she said.

In other words, when people ask you, “So, What are you taking?” the follow-up shouldn’t be, “What are you going to do with that?”

If the people who the university employs to examine the relationship between education, educators, and the workforce, like Susan Forseille, say that you “should really use university as an exploration ground, and things will naturally fit together if you’re open-minded and willing to explore opportunities presented to you,” and educators around the world are moving back toward broad-based education because that’s what industry tells them it wants, it’s possible there is a right answer to the original question of, “Who’s doing it right?” after all.

So while there’s tremendous pressure to figure out what career you’ll go into before you even figure out who you are, it might be better to treat your education as your foundation from which you can find your best fit in the labour market, as Forseille put it, rather than trying to shoehorn yourself into a job by taking the training you think (or are told) it will require.

And you’ll also be helping swing the pendulum back where most people seem to think it belongs.