Equal Opportunity for a Secondary Education

The Canadian Values Party has a plan so that every Canadian child has the same opportunity as any other for a secondary education. Whether the parents are rich, middle class, on social assistance or sinking in debt EVERY child in Canada should have access to a secondary education. We are not talking about student loans, but a plan to help students not be in debt when they graduate. And no, this doesn’t mean putting Canada in Debt… no more than Justin Trudeau is doing to us already.

1As this article explains, this is one of many reasons why a secondary education is so important, not just for the student, but for all of Canada.

With the rapid changes in the economy, such that many of today’s jobs did not even exist a few years ago, there is growing interest in the relationship between education, skills and the labour market.

Post-secondary education is a primary means by which Canadians obtain the skills they need. But too often, debate fails to consider broadly the skills that matter, the value of different skills, and the role universities and colleges can play in helping individuals develop these skills.

Such questions are of particular concern given the infamous barista trope: the suggestion that going to university or college, particularly to study the humanities or social sciences, is a waste of time and will leave graduates stuck in low-earnings jobs with little opportunity for advancement.

Attempting to address these issues, the Education Policy Research Initiative (EPRI) undertook an innovative research project, in partnership with Statistics Canada and funded by Employment and Social Development Canada, that linked administrative data on students from 14 post-secondary institutions to tax records to track the labour market outcomes of Canadian diploma and bachelor’s graduates from 2005 through 2013.

While some of the findings were predictable, others countered popular preconceptions. Engineering graduates of university and college programs performed best. For example, those who finished university in 2005 earned an average of $56,400 their first year out, and $99,600 eight years after graduating (up 77 per cent).

But social sciences bachelor’s graduates also did pretty well, with average earnings of $36,300 immediately after graduation, growing to just under $62,000 eight years later (up 71 per cent). Starting at $32,800 and finishing at $57,000, humanities grads also experienced steady growth, with a 74-per-cent increase. In comparison, a barista working full-time would likely pull in only about $22,000 – with little growth over time.

So what should we take from these findings? First, preconceptions are not a good basis for making decisions about post-secondary education – for students making their education choices, for post-secondary institutions making programs decisions, for policymakers, or for the general public. All stakeholders need more hard data of this type.

Secondly, these findings should prompt us to think harder about skills and skill development in post-secondary education. If “even” general arts and science graduates do relatively well in the labour market, it must be because they have skills that are valued by employers. But we need to better understand the full range of skills that matter and determine the potential role of post-secondary education in helping individuals develop those skills.

In particular, we need to go beyond traditional discipline/occupation-specific notions of skills. After all, those who major in English, history, or philosophy – and even those in most of the social sciences – are not being hired and progressing in their careers primarily because they know Chaucer, the origins of the modern world, or Plato (or other discipline-specific subject matter), and we need to better understand the more general skill sets that open a range of employment opportunities and career paths over time.

These skills include essential competencies such as literacy and numeracy, as well as higher-order cognitive skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving. But perhaps of greatest importance are “transferable” skills such as being an effective communicator, a team player, an innovator and adaptable.

That’s certainly what employers are saying – in ALL sectors, including “STEM”   (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) as well as those hiring the surprisingly well-performing humanities and social sciences (and other) graduates.

This is not to suggest that universities should become employment training centres. (Colleges already focus on job skills.) In fact, these “new labour market skills” (which, in many ways are old skills) are generally related to innovative and effective teaching approaches: student-initiated inquiry, team learning, communication using varied formats, pushing boundaries, and so on. So as students develop their more general skills, they will also gain better command over subject knowledge. It’s largely win-win, not either/or.



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