Just the job: Canada's students shift to the college fast lane

Fleet of foot vocational institutions steal a march on traditional universities. Jon Marcus reports

July 21, 2011

Credit: Reza Vaziri
Living in the real world: George Brown College emphasises practical skills

A national debate is under way in Canada about the value of a university education as students flock to vocationally focused community colleges and concern grows among the nation's universities.

Angela Conrad began her post-secondary education at the University of Manitoba, where, to satisfy her degree requirements, she took courses in women's studies, Greek mythology and astrology.

To her, it seemed a roundabout way to realise her ambition of getting a job in marketing.

"It takes people two years, sometimes three years" to finish their mandatory 30 credit hours of general studies for an undergraduate degree, she says.

"It made me think that there had to be a learning style that was faster and more practical than that."

Conrad, 23, makes this observation in the student lounge at George Brown College in Toronto, where she transferred after abandoning a university degree in favour of a two-year college diploma.

Like many other community colleges in Canada, George Brown is popular for its emphasis on teaching practical skills that are intended to be directly relevant to students' future careers.

Some 15 per cent of those now enrolled at community colleges are students who have given up on universities. Colleges have decided that what students should get for their money is a job.

"Fortunately, our community colleges are in the real world," writes one columnist in The Globe and Mail newspaper, which ran a series of stories earlier this year that elevated such rumblings to a level that universities found alarming.

"There are some folks in Canada who will say the universities aren't as relevant as they used to be, and they'll go to the colleges," says Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, which, its name notwithstanding, is the voice of the nation's universities.

Davidson says that university degree holders continue to earn 40 per cent more over their lifetimes than community college graduates.

"One of the concerns we have is that Canadians will underestimate their earning premium and overestimate the cost of university."

Still, he concedes, the timing is right for colleges that unabashedly promise their students immediate employment.

Many boast that between 80 and 90 per cent of their graduates will have jobs in their chosen fields within six months. Universities, in contrast, offer something more abstract and long term.

"There is more interest than ever in getting through higher education and getting a job - getting through post-secondary education in a reasonable amount of time, getting a job and moving on," says John Davies, the Oxford-educated president of Humber College, in Toronto's western suburbs.

According to January 2011 figures from the enrolment management consulting firm Noel-Levitz, Canada has 898,000 full-time university students, while the Association of Canadian Community Colleges says its sector had 1.5 million students in May 2010, although not all were studying at diploma level.

Leading the global field

It is because of its colleges, not its universities, that Canada is first among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development nations in the proportion of the population aged 25 to 64 with a post-secondary qualification.

The nation's college, as opposed to university, attainment rate is two to three times higher than that of most other OECD countries. But if only the proportion of the population with university degrees is considered, Canada falls to eighth place behind the US, several northern European countries, South Korea and Australia.

Meanwhile, it is shedding jobs that can be done without a post-secondary qualification and adding jobs that require one. Some 70 per cent of new jobs in Ontario, for instance, will require some kind of post-secondary education.

Community colleges have leaped into the breach. They are more nimble than universities, and can start new programmes in quick reaction to employer demand.

George Brown, which was founded in 1967 and was once known almost exclusively for training chefs, has now spread across two campuses with another under construction on the Toronto lakefront.

When a major gaming company moved to the city, the college started a gaming programme. Begun with 40 students in 2008, the programme now boasts an enrolment of 350 in sleek, high-tech classrooms. And when the government extended services for autistic children, requiring more specialists, the college fast-tracked a diploma in behavioural science.

"We don't have the same approval process," Anne Sado, George Brown president, says of the institution's advantages over a university. "We can have a programme up and running within months."

These and other developments have led an even greater percentage of younger students than older ones to opt for college, rather than university, qualifications. Although among 25- to 64-year-olds Canada ranks eighth among OECD nations for university degrees among 25- to 64-year-olds, it falls to 15th for 25- to 34-year-olds.

So acute is this trend, Davidson says, "we are concerned that our position is eroding globally".

Arts and humanities subjects are most under siege. While university graduates may earn more than their peers with community college qualifications, those with liberal-arts degrees earn less than those with applied degrees in areas such as the sciences, and are more likely to be underemployed.

"Many of them will subsequently enrol in a college to get advanced skills," says James Knight, president of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges.

Knight's own son graduated with a university degree in economics, but couldn't find a job he wanted.

He went on to study at George Brown, earned a diploma in sports and event marketing, and now works for the Canadian Olympic cycling team. "He's in heaven," Knight said of his son. "And that's a typical story. The collective wisdom is, if you want to get a job, going to a college will mean nine times out of 10 you'll be employed in your area of interest. Not to be negative about any other form of education, but we've discovered that we can do this extremely well."

As their role has changed, so has the community colleges' prestige and even their appearance. At Centennial College on Toronto's eastern fringe, classroom buildings constructed from cinderblock in the 1970s are overshadowed by a striking new C$46 million (£29.8 million) library sheathed in copper.

Society demands outcomes

"We teach people how to do things," said Ann Buller, Centennial president.

"The past few years have really put this under the microscope - that learning has to lead to something. Society demands that there be outcomes. Perhaps really wealthy societies can afford for all of us to learn just for the sake of learning. But for me, knowledge that doesn't translate into action is just trivia," Buller argues.

The universities, unsurprisingly, do not take that kind of talk lightly. One way they have fought back is to refuse to accept community college credits for transfer into graduate and professional programmes.

However, the country's two westernmost provinces, Alberta and British Columbia, now require universities to do so, via a complex approval process. Others may follow suit.

"Successful societies depend on creative people who are well rounded. That only comes from the grounding of curricula that are available at universities," says David Naylor, president of the University of Toronto, in his office overlooking one of the city centre campus' historic quadrangles.

"Applied education is sterile," Naylor says. "And the view that graduates in arts or the humanities are somehow fiddling away for four years is regressive. It's a classic trap in logic that people fall into when they imagine that every university degree has to have some employability prospect."

However, Stephen Toope, president of the University of British Columbia, insists: "University is not for everybody. I don't subscribe to the view that the best measure of success in a society is to increase the university participation rates exponentially. What this country needs is a diversity of higher education."

But the cost issue is driving changes in attitudes, Buller believes.

"In a world where taxpayers pay and students pay to go here, in the end, I want my graduates to get jobs," she says.

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