The Inevitability of Change in Post Secondary Education (Print Version)
by Harry Valentine*
Le Québécois Libre, April
15, 2012, No 299.

Several thousand post secondary students across Quebec have chosen to boycott their classes as they protest against higher tuition fees. In Ontario, the provincial government is facing budgetary restrictions and has indicated that more university level courses may be offered online. Many universities and colleges internationally are offering non-residential programs in the social sciences, business and even some areas of health care.

The downturn in the economy has also resulted in thousands of college and university graduates being unable to find employment in areas where they may apply some of their newly acquired knowledge. Prospective graduates who intended to work in the public service in a federal, provincial or municipal department now face the prospect of governments reducing the size of the civil service. A large percentage of companies and businesses are reducing expenditures, including employee wages. Most recent graduates will find themselves being employed outside of fields that they studied in college and university, at wage rates that reflect the state of the economy.

In the United States, some 320,000 waiters and waitresses hold college diplomas and/or university degrees while over 1,000 janitors hold doctorate level degrees. Recent graduates from state institutions of higher learning also hold such positions as truck drivers, transit bus drivers, parking lot attendants, and cashiers and clerks in supermarkets, retail outlets and department stores. Most of these students borrowed money to pay for their tuition. They find themselves needing to pay off massive student loans on low salaries.

Taking the Initiative

A growing number of high school students are realizing the challenges that they and their peers face in the changing and under-performing world economy. This author knows several teenage students who also took courses online from outside institutions. They revealed during brief interviews their preference for learn-at-your-own-pace courses of study in areas of special interest to them. The cost of these non-residential programs was often a fraction of the cost of residential programs being offered by both state-run and private colleges and universities.

This author also met adults who had graduated from a short-term college program several years earlier and had recently upgraded their education and training courtesy of online learning programs made available in a learn-at-your-own-pace format. They were able to negotiate for recognition of these programs with their present employers, who subsequently gave them opportunities to prove themselves on a trial basis by assigning new and expanded responsibilities based on their newly acquired knowledge. During brief interviews, they said they were growing into their new areas of responsibility and acquiring new practical expertise.

These people have followed the advice written in several books on success. They took the initiative to make themselves more valuable to their employers who in turn were willing to take a calculated risk by progressively assigning new responsibilities. The employers provided opportunities for them to grow into their new job descriptions and contribute expanded skills and value to the organization. In other cases, people took the initiative to purchase CDs that contained learn-at-your-own-pace programs that expanded the range of their skills and abilities, with successful outcomes at their places of employment.

Several years ago, Microsoft provided opportunities for interested employees who were willing to take the initiative to acquire new job skills at home by learning the operational aspects of Microsoft’s commercial operating system. They could do online tests at a Microsoft examination center and upon achieving a passing grade, receive certification that opened doors for them to work in positions that required information technology expertise. These programs were available privately before state and provincial colleges began to include them in their curricula.

In this present economy, a large proportion of the students who graduate from state-run colleges and universities will face the prospect of underemployment while carrying massive student debt. The positions of waiters, waitresses, servers, cashiers, clerks, parking lot attendants, janitors and truck drivers account for the most numerous job titles in the economy and require little in the way of a high school education, let alone a college diploma or university degree. A former government official commented on the shortcomings of government-run schools in the USA and internationally.

Learning a Trade

Officials at some state and provincial departments that oversee colleges and universities have chosen to enforce class attendance in trade programs where candidates had previously worked as assistants to established tradesmen in the role of an apprentice. While it is quite possible for a candidate to learn the theory courtesy of a learn-at-your-own-pace online program and learn the practical aspects of a trade through a hands-on approach by working as an assistant or as an apprentice, states and provinces refuse to allow them to obtain a license in this manner.

There is a shortage of skilled people in a variety of trades in jurisdictions such as Ontario. Government officials in Ontario demand that a candidate interested in obtaining expertise in a trade attend instruction at a provincial college. However, all the relevant theoretical information they require to achieve proficiency in several trades is available through online programs and CDs. A candidate may combine their private learning with practical work as an assistant or apprentice, especially in remote locations away from large cities.

Despite a shortage of skilled tradespersons, jurisdictions such as Ontario have actively begun to discourage people from taking the initiative to upgrade their skills through independent and private learning programs along with practical work that could otherwise prepare them to pass a licensing exam. Guilds still exist in many regions and seek to maintain higher wages for the services of their members by restricting entry into select trades and professions. These guilds still control many traditional trades and professions.

Guilds, along with willing government officials, indirectly compel candidates to attend college programs that provide the same material as competing private programs. However, there is a wide range of unique and specialized job descriptions in the economy that are outside of the control of guilds. Candidates can upgrade their skills privately and enhance their chances for promotion and actually contribute to keeping their employers functional and competitive in a rapidly changing and highly challenged economy.

The majority of students who graduate from colleges and universities with massive debt will also be underemployed. Most will not take the initiative to acquire additional and relevant skills using programs offered online and on CDs. The result will be a lost generation. In today’s challenging economic environment, people who take the initiative to acquire new skills privately appear to be getting ahead it terms of career and job satisfaction. Perhaps the future of higher learning may be private, learner-paced programs as students seek an alternative to college and university programs that leave them with massive debt and limited prospects of acquiring meaningful employment.

* Harry Valentine is a free-marketeer living in Eastern Ontario.