Universities, colleges and the needs of business and society

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University students studying (photo:courtesy of Keira Burton)

It is virtually a rite of passage for students graduating from high school in May and June of each year to be lined up beside their peers and head off to universities and colleges in the fall. For many students, it is more of a gratifying idea. They select a programme, many times without much thought. It may seem ‘cool’ as their peers are doing it. Approximately 40 per cent of the population in OECD countries would have gone to universities and colleges, which have become increasingly expensive over the last decade. These students will now graduate with student loan debt more significant than the amount needed for a down payment on a house.

Students need to be better advised before entering university. The dropout rate for students in OECD countries ranges between 15 and 25 per cent, and 56 per cent enrolled in four-year institutions drop out after six years. On average, some 31 per cent of the students who enter tertiary education leave without any form of certification or tertiary qualifications.

Many students who enroll in local universities do so not because they want knowledge or a title but because they need decent jobs. The number one reason for the massive investment of personal money and time in gaining tertiary qualifications is to secure financial stability and stable employment. Despite having greater rewards and a low unemployment rate in the economy, many graduates are working in jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree or the level of knowledge they have acquired.

The question then arises; are universities and colleges meeting the needs of businesses and modern society? In a recent survey conducted by Wiley’s Education, over 600 human resource professionals were surveyed, and 47 per cent of the respondents indicated that colleges weren’t preparing students for the working world. Many jobs were going unfilled, and graduates did not possess the special skills and technological capabilities to fill the needs.

More universities, today, seem to be operating in their own bubble. They are underfunded by the public and in North America some have seen declining enrolment in domestic students and the number of international students which had become their cash cow has flatlined. In addition, a significant percentage of the teaching staff are overworked contract faculty. While universities grapple with these challenges and try to make themselves relevant, the business sector has changed exponentially.

Over the last two decades technology and business processes have changed considerably. Workforce skills and requirements have been transformed. Some jobs exist today that were not around ten years ago. The data scientist, bloggers, social media influencers, and coders to name a few. In the next decade, advances in technology and innovations would have significantly outpaced what we have now. These changes are taking place faster than universities and colleges can adapt. The era in which tertiary institutions drove the technological revolution and workforce requirements has long passed. Many institutions of higher learning are still stuck in the mode of eighties and nineties thinking and delivery.

In this modern competitive economy, many students are questioning whether a university degree is still worth the time and money. In order to regain their relevance and remain viable, institutions of higher learning will have to collaborate more with industry. They will have to start exploring and exploiting new technology in areas not limited to analytics, mobility, cloud computing, and digital media. Universities will need to tailor their programmes offerings, duration, and course structure to meet and keep abreast of the futuristic demands of alternative careers and jobs.

The Wall Street Journal in a recent publication alludes to the fact that higher education institutions should focus more on technology careers and less on finance, they should be preparing more workers for the healthcare field and related areas to insulate workers’ jobs from being taken over by artificial intelligence. (AI)

Students are paying more and getting less at institutions of higher learning, many have unrealistic expectations about colleges and universities. These institutions see themselves as the engine of growth and employment creation. In reality, they are churning out well-educated waiters and labourers with millions of dollars of cumulative debt.

The time to adjust is now as many more institutions of higher learning will become insolvent and irrelevant as the new economy finds ways to train workers specific to the demand of industries.

Fernon Wilson is an educator residing in Canada.

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