Postsecondary education: Pipe dream or prerequisite? Ask a plumber.

One of the most ubiquitous and powerful arguments made by advocates of greater investment in higher education is that a postsecondary education is instrumental to economic success, for both the individual and the public.  The public and governments appear to have accepted that 70-80 per cent of future jobs will require some postsecondary credential and that research and innovation from our colleges and universities are the mainstay of modern economies. To no small extent, these positions underlie the continuing investment governments are prepared to make in higher education.

So imagine how distressing it is to have someone say that this mantra is just plain wrong.  Normally, one would be inclined to dismiss such contrarians (and you know how good many academics are about dismissing, in the most eloquent and erudite fashion, those views they do not embrace).   A recent piece by Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail (March 31) elicited such a reaction.  But, when the contrarian turns out to be Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, and the opinion is expressed in the New York Times (March 6), the source of all truths, the argument is typically taken more seriously. In my experience, it is never smart to dismiss Paul Krugman.

Krugman points out that “the belief that education is becoming ever more important rests on the plausible-sounding notion that advances in technology increase job opportunities for those who work with information…”  Yet, Krugman notes that as long as a task can be routinized and committed to rules there is every reason to believe that technology will take over those jobs and replace the need for humans to do them.  And, he continues, the jobs performed by highly-educated workers may be easier to send offshore, thus removing domestic jobs, than those performed by less-educated workers, such as truck drivers (the specific example he uses).

I have several reactions to the arguments advanced by Krugman and Wente.

First, a reality check.  Whether we like it or not, or think it is necessary or not, the reality is that the great majority of jobs available in the future will require some postsecondary credential.  In Ontario, the trades – plumbers, electricians – require a postsecondary credential, programs that are offered by colleges.  I remember vividly the argument made to me by the CEO of a large trucking firm why they now prefer, and are hiring university graduates to drive their fleet because of the increased use of computers in the cab and the importance of logistics in the transportation sector.  Nurses now pursue a baccalaureate degree; some provinces require physiotherapists to have a master’s degree.  Some will argue that this “creeping credentialism” is unnecessary, ill-advised and a waste of money.  Perhaps so.  But, until this tide turns (and there is no evidence that it is), more and more students will flock to colleges and universities because they know that the credential they get is their ticket to more and better paying jobs.  This is their reality and they have it right.

Second, the views of the Krugmans and Wentes of this world should lead us, in my view, to examine in a more sophisticated way what we mean by the relationship between higher education, jobs and economic success.  I think Krugman is right.  Any task that can be rule-governed is prey to being taken over by technology and computers.  The range of such possible tasks is not trivial and will expand.  Those with any imagination who watched IBM’s Watson computer destroy the two best Jeopardy-playing humanoids had a glimpse of the possible areas and tasks to which that software and technology could be applied.  (Yes, I know Watson had a mechanical advantage in buzzing in; what was impressive was Watson’s ability to understand the clues, which are semantically difficult to dissect, and, in the great majority of cases, to come up with the correct answer).

So, the simple idea that more education means more and better jobs needs to be refined. We should be more disciplined and precise in considering what kinds of jobs we will need people to do, which means we should give more consideration to the kind of education students need from our institutions of higher learning, what skills should these institutions teach and develop in their graduates.  We’re talking “learning outcomes” here, and they will be the focus of a HEQCO conference next month that will assemble an international roster of learning assessment experts.

Higher education should not be about repeated attempts to cram specific information into students’ heads.   Rather, we aspire for our students to be better critical thinkers and communicators, more reflective, imaginative, innovative and entrepreneurial, better able to address challenges that we cannot even anticipate now.  If these are the real learning outcomes higher education should produce, if they are the skills needed to succeed in the jobs of the future (and today’s economy), then we might worry a little more about curricula and learning experiences that develop these attributes.  And, we certainly should do a better job of measuring whether our students actually acquire these skills.

And while we’re talking alignment between higher learning and the labour market, an equally important question is whether we have a higher education system that educates graduates who will create jobs for other people.   To what degree are our curricula fostering innovation and entrepreneurship skills? It is individuals with these traits who, it seems, disproportionately create jobs that will employ others.

Lastly, I have always thought that one of the management skills needed in complex organizations (like the modern research university) is knowing when not to follow the rules — when common sense suggests that they are simply inappropriate or wrong in certain situations.  Intuitively, it seems that programming a computer to judge when to break (or at least “bend greatly”) the rules and to select a better course of action would be a difficult programming task.  The folks at IBM may prove me wrong.

Thanks for reading.

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