Recently, at the annual conference of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges, Gwyn Morgan, retired CEO of energy giant EnCana, gave the opening keynote address, where he extolled the contributions colleges make to the economy and to the career success of many Canadians. He was right to do so. Canada has a strong and successful commitment to college education. As a result, the ratio of Canadian adults with a college credential to those with a university credential is nearly one to one. Across the OECD it is one to two. In the United States it is one to three.
Then Morgan shared his views about our universities. He said they underperform and then compared them to hippopotami: sluggish. He was especially critical of research-intensive universities and arts/humanities programs. He urged the audience to counsel young people to avoid fields with poor labour market returns, like the humanities, even if this is where their passions lie.
“Would you like fries with that?” he joked, was a line of learned inquiry for humanities graduates. He faulted our high schools as well, for allowing students to forego the tough courses, like math and science, forcing them to default into the humanities.
The Canadian energy sector has been handsomely rewarded by findings at research-intensive universities that have driven efficiencies in oil and gas extraction, refinement, transportation and environmental protection.
There are many strong leaders, on the boards and in the executive offices of Canadian companies, with arts degrees in their CVs. One imagines that they bring an important rounding of perspective to the engineering-centric energy sector.
Yes, initial employment outcomes for humanities graduates are softer than for engineering or for universities and colleges as a whole. There is a straighter line to a job from a clearly defined professional or vocational program. Humanities students must use creativity, social skills, entrepreneurship and tenacity to latch on and catch up in the labour market. The longer-term data show that although they may never earn the lifetime big bucks of the engineer, they will experience steady earnings increases and handsome remuneration, as a result.
In Ontario, only one in eight first-time university graduates has a humanities degree. Given that we graduate almost as many people from colleges (which generally speaking do not offer humanities credentials) that’s one in 15 over all new credential holders, which hardly constitutes a glut.
Our colleges also offer programs with challenging labour market outcomes data. If the single perspective on success were to be aggressive labour market performance, then young Canadians should be steered away from these as well. Sweet sounds made by graduates from world renowned college music programs would be silenced, just for starters.
The next keynote at the conference was Wade Davis, distinguished anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer in Residence, who graduated from a research-intensive university. He blew the audience’s mind by weaving together insights on human nature, culture, power and prejudice around the world. The college crowd, who know to cherish the contributions of both sides of the postsecondary house, gave him a standing ovation. This was the charge of the hippopotamus – and the river awoke.
Martin Hicks is HEQCO’s executive director of data and statistics.