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Misspent education creates inequality gap

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VICTORIA -- Inequality has become a prominent subject of editorials and social discourse. Financial inequality was the underlying issue driving the Occupy Movement's "one per cent" demonstrations that began on Wall Street and it was a factor in Montreal's student protests over tuition hikes.

Successful baby boomers are targeted because, after struggling to get an education in skills that would land a job and decades of effort, they have accumulated some wealth. That the living standards my wife and I experienced in our school years were much more modest than that of the majority of today's young protesters matters little. To them, we symbolize intergenerational inequality.

But I have news for today's students. Your future will be defined by the degree to which you learn skills that match the needs of job markets. Those of you who gain useful skills will find higher paying, more rewarding jobs; while those without that knowledge will face low-paying and unstable prospects. It is this skills gap that will define the haves and have-nots of your future, creating a progressively widening inequality gap between those of your own generation.

Canada's skills gap has been brought into increasing focus by the large numbers of unfilled jobs that co-exist with high youth unemployment. Last summer, a report commissioned by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives said Canada is falling behind in the global skills race. The answer, many university presidents say, is more money to produce more graduates. But what if Canadian universities were the root cause of the skills gap, rather than the solution?

There's considerable evidence to support this conclusion. While universities like to trot out statistics showing their graduates have higher rates of employment than people without post-secondary education, they deliberately fail to report what portion of those graduates find work that requires a university education. An OECD survey provides that information: Some 40 per cent of Canadian university graduates aged 25 to 29 are employed in low-skill jobs, the second worst rating out of 11 countries surveyed. That bachelor of arts majoring in history or philosophy just isn't of much use to a barista at Starbucks.

Failure to find work using their university learning has driven a huge increase in BA graduate enrolment in jobs-focused colleges. This means taxpayers pay for a costly but practically useless university education program and then pay again for the college program. For students, it means piling even more debt on top of that spent on their university degree. Those debts, combined with lost earning years, mean many will be in their fourth decade before they can start building any net worth. And for businesses unable to fill skilled jobs, it means stymied growth that reduces our country's productivity and prosperity. Such is the sad toll when our publicly funded universities put "academic freedom" to teach whatever they choose ahead of the interests of their students, and our country.

Imagine a business where some products are in high demand, while other products languish on warehouse shelves. Yet that company's employees have veto power over the reallocation of production resources, forcing it to turn out ever larger amounts of surplus products while failing to satisfy growing demand for others. That business would, of course, soon be bankrupt.

But since our universities can't go bankrupt, they just keep spending public funds producing graduates without job prospects, while demanding even more money to expand enrollment in skills-short fields. But growing government deficits are ending that gambit.

Without internal reallocation of funds, universities will continue to turn away upwards of half of applicants for such high-demand programs as Engineering, Medicine and Information Technology. Just as appallingly, more than half of university graduates will continue to be doomed to low-paid unfulfilling jobs, or no job at all.

When next year's crop of graduates walks the convocation stages, close to half won't possess skills that have significantly improved their career prospects. In sharp contrast, those that have gained such skills can look forward to rewarding careers. And the classes of 2013 will come to know the most damaging inequality is not of possessions, but rather the inequality of hope.


-- Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2012 J6

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