In Quebec, we have had massive student protests. Students were asking for free higher education. It seems that things have quieted down as the new government has vowed to freeze tuition in constant dollar. Though it is never spelled out as such, affordable higher education is viewed as a tool to favor social mobility.
Most of us are in favor of social mobility: it is a good thing if a kid from a poor background can grow to become wealthy.
Sociologists will argue that we have no other social engineering tool to favor social mobility like affordable higher education. That is what justifies massive government involvement in higher education even in countries as right-leaning as the United States. In more left-leaning countries like France, higher education is often entirely free.
Before I pursue this line of thought, there is another unstated assumption: college graduates are smarter and they make better citizens. While the first assumption (social mobility) is founded on solid research, this second one has much weaker support. Spending time in college will improve the mastery of your major, but your overall cognitive skills may not improve. For example, getting a degree in English will not help you if you need to learn software programming later. Arguably, a degree in mathematics might help you become a better programmer, but even that is doubtful.
In any case, it has been historically true that college degrees have translated into better jobs, especially for the poorer half of the population. But, at some point, we have confused the means and the goals. What the young people in Quebec should be asking for are the means to start their careers.
Meanwhile, as a college professor I sometimes have to answer difficult questions such as “if I get this diploma or degree, will I get a job?” That is, many students care very much about the first unstated assumption: attending college helps you get jobs.
Most university-level professors, me included, are uneasy with this function. My job is simply not geared toward providing job training. For example, I try to get our students to program if only because it is such a useful skill to have in industry. Unfortunately, if a student only programs within our classes, he is very unlikely to become a sought-after expert programmer. For most people, it takes 10 years to be great at programming. So, degrees are not a straight path to a career in the software industry. The same is true of most degrees and most industries. Universities are simply not great at job training and they don’t make people all-around smarter.
But this used not to matter. The old industrial-age model was: get a degree or diploma in whatever you care for, get an office job, retire. The purpose of the degree was not to train you but rather to fail those who could not conform to a typical office job. This model still work if you are lucky enough to get a job in government or a big corporation.
Yet conformity is less important in the post-industrial age. And correspondingly, we are slowly moving to a post-industrial career model where a badge like a degree or diploma is only one of the things that are nice to have.
Increasingly, my answer to “Will I get a job with this degree?” is “If that’s all you have, no, you won’t”.
Effectively, I predict that the effectiveness of higher education as a tool for social mobility will weaken. A focus on conformity-based badges like degrees will fail the younger generation. The routine factory and office jobs are being automated and outsourced too fast. I am especially concerned when I hear the student representatives present the degree as a goal in itself. As if we were in the seventies.
- Brown and Lauder, The great transformation in the global labour market, Soundings, Number 51, July 2012.