Manitoba’s minister of advanced education, skills and immigration, Wayne Ewasko, recently announced a three-year strategy for post-secondary education in the province. While short on details, the plan’s broad goals are to better align what happens at post-secondary institutions with the needs of the labour market in Manitoba.
In part, the province will demand that universities provide expanded opportunities for students to acquire work experience while they’re completing their degrees, such as through co-ops or internships. The government’s report notes that a lack of work experience means students can "experience delays in connecting to employers upon graduation."
That’s correct. Students often benefit tremendously from these opportunities to get their feet wet in the job market, and provincial government support for these programs will be welcomed. But government quotas should not result in unpaid internships and other positions, which are an outrageous and all-too-frequent sop to cheapskate employers looking to save some cash. Students cannot pay the rent with high-fives from their managers.
The government will also require universities to ensure post-secondary programs are tailored to anticipated market needs. This — together with the government’s recent interest in the outcome-based Tennessee funding model — is where eyebrows may be raised. Universities will be required to "…identify and shift programs that oversupply the labour market" and work to "…re-balance programs and resources to align with industry needs."
It’s not difficult to figure out what programs the government has in mind when it talks about oversupplying the labour market: liberal arts programs such as classics, history, English, anthropology, sociology, philosophy and political science. Programs in the fine arts are also likely included.
Part of the problem here is that these programs generally do not have clear paths to obvious jobs that governments can monitor and place check marks beside. If you go into a welding program, for example, you are likely to land a job as a welder. But very few people who go to university and major in anthropology, for example, will end up clinching jobs as professional anthropologists. Instead, their career outcomes are much, much more varied.
Over the course of five-and-a-half long years as head of the department of political studies at the University of Manitoba, I counselled hundreds of students who had precisely these sorts of worries about majoring in politics or other liberal arts disciplines. I also tried my best to keep up with our graduates. Our students took up jobs in such fields as law, journalism and the civil service. Some went on to graduate school; some worked directly in politics, whereas others either ran for public office themselves or are working toward that.
Others took up positions working for lobbying groups. Many of our students scored internship opportunities outside our province.
Other students graduated and took entry-level positions… and quickly found themselves being promoted and managing others. The reason for this is that these students are smart and, to use the government’s word, nimble. Their far-reaching liberal arts education has prepared them to quickly adapt to new situations and challenges, and indeed to switch sectors entirely if necessary; to work thoughtfully and conscientiously with others, and to bring critical discernment and clear judgment to their roles.
A good education in the liberal arts will prepare students for these challenges. In a world in which people can expect to switch jobs or even careers several times over their work life, the skills that come with a liberal arts degree may come in handier than the narrow, specialized skills other students learn.
And despite stereotypes about philosophy majors only able to find work frothing frappuccinos after graduating, study after study shows that university graduates, including those from the liberal arts, outperform others with respect to lifetime earnings.
But don’t trust me on the value of a good liberal arts education; instead, trust Ewasko’s colleagues in the provincial cabinet. Strikingly, almost all the senior members of Premier Brian Pallister’s cabinet hold undergraduate degrees with majors in the liberal arts. Both deputy premier Kelvin Goertzen and Finance Minister Scott Fielding hold degrees in economics from the University of Manitoba, and Fielding also majored in political science. Health Minister Heather Stefanson holds a BA in political science, while Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler majored in international relations and sociology.
Attorney General Cameron Friesen majored in music. And the premier himself graduated from Brandon University with a degree in arts and education.
These ministers have used their liberal arts degrees to pursue both meaningful and rewarding careers. So why wouldn’t the government want to ensure these programs are fully available for the current generation of students?
Ewasko is right to emphasize experiential learning during students’ time at post-secondary institutions, and to provide support to boost graduation rates. But the unique role of the liberal arts in preparing students for a range of careers here in Manitoba should not be overshadowed by the government’s focus on meeting specific labour-market needs.
Royce Koop is an associate professor in the department of political studies and co-ordinator of the Canadian studies program at the University of Manitoba.