Graduation season is wrapping up and there are now scores of university graduates heading off into the marketplace. I strongly suspect that a large percentage of these students are not actually better equipped for that marketplace as a result of having gone to university. Some may read this and conclude that it’s evidence that we’re doing things wrong. That we’re no longer connecting to students in the right way and we need to make wholesale changes to our curriculum and teaching methods. I think this is the wrong way to try and solve the problem. Instead, we should simply stop telling so many students that they need to go to university in the first place. Many of these graduates probably should never have gone to university at all.
Some may find it surprising to hear a university professor say this (especially one at a university that is tuition-dependent!), but the fact of the matter is that a significant number of students that enroll in universities are simply not the type of student that would actually benefit from it. This is why, in times past, there was such a clear distinction between university and the various trade schools. Some people simply have no interest in sitting in the lecture hall for 15 – 20 hours and then spending another 25 – 30 hours a week pouring over assigned readings from Dante, Descartes, or Darwin. This is all on top of the countless hours spent researching and writing term papers. But in order for one’s time at university to be worthwhile, this is the sort of commitment that is required.1
I am not, in any way, suggesting that those that opt to learn a trade are somehow less intelligent than those that go to university. This is something I learned first-hand as I watched my father run his own paint contracting business for more than 20 years. He had no university training, but was instrumental in helping the members of his crew put food on the table every night. He could do this because he was good at what he did and learned how to grow the business. I have several friends that decided not to pursue a university education, but are clearly smart and intelligent people. They learned a skilled trade of some sort and are now all quite successful – both in terms of quality of life and in general job satisfaction.
We are doing a disservice to students when we tell them that they must go to university. By expecting every student to go to university we’re implying that those that don’t have either 1) failed for not living up to their potential or 2) are just not intelligent enough to do well in university. What this implicit expectation we put on students fails to take into accout is that we’re always going to need someone like my father to paint our houses and businesses. We’re going to need someone to repair our roads, cut our hair, design our websites, and fix our computers. We need skilled, honest, people to do these things because they must be done, but we’re often incapable of doing them ourselves. The fact that these jobs don’t require a university degree doesn’t diminish the value they provide to society, just think what your life would be like if you had to do all those things yourself!
In sum, having honest, skilled, tradesmen is essential to our society. But this requires that some people are educated outside of the university system. Encouraging students to pursue this route not only prevents them from feeling discouraged when they don’t succeed in university, it also frees up resources within the university system to focus on those that really do want to there in the first place.
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Here I am not talking about simply getting good marks. A student that doesn’t commit to the class as outlined above could still get a decent mark by simply cramming before an exam. Such a student may eke out a nice transcript but that doesn’t mean their time in university was actually worthwhile or beneficial.
Mike Holmes, “A Life Fulfilled in the Skilled Trades,” National Post.