Vancouver Sun Opinion: There’s more to an education than just getting a job

B.C. better with post-secondary education investment
By Scott McAlpine, Special to The Vancouver Sun February 25, 2013

B.C. better with post-secondary education investment

Scott McAlpine is president of Douglas College.

If you’ve been following the news lately, it would be easy to believe that post-secondary education has become a battleground where universities, colleges and technical institutes fight among each other for increasingly scarce public dollars to educate more students in alignment with each institution’s particular field of expertise.

Meanwhile, some graduating university students say they are facing a tough time finding related work, leading to headlines questioning the value of a university degree in the first place. Is there a barista, bartender or server with a liberal arts degree in Vancouver who hasn’t been interviewed about their perceived lack of job prospects?

You might think that all this talk about the high cost of post-secondary and the perceived lack of immediate payoff for university grads would have more affordable, applied educational institutions like Douglas College simply pointing students our way, instead of toward university. After all, Douglas College offers dozens of career-specific programs and an applied educational philosophy that emphasizes learning by doing.

An easy win, maybe. But it isn’t a fair assessment. In fact, this dichotomy between universities and colleges or institutes is patently false and perpetuating it ultimately undermines the entire post-secondary system in B.C. Our post-secondary system is one of the best in the world because it is indeed a system. The new reality is that today, the starting point on your educational journey is not likely to be your end point. And because B.C.’s post-secondary transfer system is so advanced, it’s relatively easy to move from institution to institution.

More and more students are doing just that. Long gone is the notion of education being a one-way street, with students starting at a college, and then moving on to “finish” their education at a university. In 2011, some 6,200 B.C. students certainly did transfer from colleges to research universities. But 4,200 students moved the other way, from research universities to colleges. Likewise, while 9,300 college students transferred to teaching universities and institutes, 10,800 transferred to colleges. This mobility is a hallmark of post-secondary education in B.C. and it will only increase as online options become more readily available and accepted.

B.C. should indeed invest more in post-secondary education, but as a system and not one that pushes trades over liberal arts or engineering over social sciences. Students need to know from the start what the job prospects are in their related fields. But they must also recognize that there is much more to an education than just getting a job — both to the individual and to society as a whole.

That’s why many students are now seeing a degree as a starting point in post-secondary education, not the end. And many of those students are coming to colleges upon finishing their degrees to give themselves an advantage in the job market by pursuing a post-degree diploma, which can provide further advanced educational opportunities in specialized areas.

There is now, and always will be, an important place for bachelor’s degrees in the post-secondary system. Bachelor’s degrees are valued by students because they are seen not as a quick ticket to a job, but as a step toward intellectual fulfilment and personal development that also opens new doors and employment opportunities. This is why Douglas College offers applied degree programs as part of our educational mix. And that’s why we plan on offering more of them in the future.

Despite the anecdotal stories, the reality is that university graduates certainly do get jobs — as do college graduates and graduates from technical institutes. They may not get their ideal job immediately after graduation, but over time post-secondary degree graduates fare well in the job market and earn more than those who have not completed a credential.

From a leadership perspective, what’s important is that these educational credentials are a diverse mix — representing trades and technical skills, science, medicine, the arts, humanities — everything that is needed to power a modern society. We need more, not fewer graduates from all types of institutions if we are to continue to remain competitive as an economy and advance as a society. According to The Research Universities’ Council 2013 labour market profile, 78 per cent of the projected job openings in B.C. in the next eight years will require some post-secondary education, and right now B.C. is not producing enough graduates to fill them.

There is a looming education and skills shortage in British Columbia that poses a significant threat to our province and our economy. To curb this threat, we need further investment across the board in post-secondary education — investment in our people, our economy and our future. A better educated society is a wealthier society, yes. But it is also a kinder, more moderate and more just society. That is the point of higher education. And it is to this ever-rising bar that colleges, universities and technical institutes of British Columbia will forever reach.

Scott McAlpine is president of Douglas College.