The Uses and Abuses of University: Canada’s Post-Secondary Education System Is Failing Our Students, and Our Economy
IN 2006, Philip Isard was an accomplished undergraduate, with solid A grades from the University of Waterloo in Ontario and glowing letters of recommendation for graduate school. Earnest, hard working, intensely curious, and personable, he epitomized the talent and energy of a top Canadian university student. He went on to complete a master’s in history, picking up what he thought would be valuable research experience along the way. After finishing two degrees, he had exhausted his savings, and his student loans were piling up. Unsure whether a multi-year struggle to earn a Ph.D. would land him a job, he opted for the world of work. He hoped to find a stable career in the public service, with an NGO, or in the private sector. His career and financial aspirations were modest and, he thought, attainable.
He applied for numerous jobs in and outside his fields of interest, dozens per month. With every rejection, he adjusted his expectations and widened his search, bolstering his resumé with volunteer work, short-term research contracts, and unpaid internships. Finally, about a year and a half after graduation, he landed a promising position with a newly established NGOin Toronto. After five months, though, his job was reduced to an unpaid volunteer position when the organization’s funding dried up.
For the next month, he travelled back and forth between Vancouver and Toronto, searching for entry-level jobs and tapping into a wide network of peers, colleagues, teachers, and friends. Equipped with a cellphone and a laptop, he arranged information interviews with businesses and non-profits across Canada. After weeks of travel, with an empty bank account and no real prospects, he returned to Toronto.
Isard is among the more than 254,000 graduates produced by Canadian universities each year, and a member of a new class whose education is poorly matched with the national economy. Undergraduates face various options. Thousands continue their studies at the graduate level, hoping the additional credential will generate better opportunities. Others exchange their mortarboards for admission to a trade- or career-oriented program; in 2005, about 13 percent of university graduates continued their studies at a college, while the rest headed into the workforce. But those who choose the latter route can encounter surprising difficulties, struggling as Isard did to find paid employment or, increasingly, accepting unskilled, low-paying jobs to stay afloat.