October 15th, 2009
A clever gimmick or a sign of the times? These days universities are doing whatever it takes to attract students to their campuses. Take Regina, please: Regina is boasting about being the first university in Canada to guarantee career success upon graduation. Strings are attached. According to the UR web site, “Each [undergraduate] student who actively participates in the UR Guarantee program will be required to take part in mandatory as well as elective opportunities supplied by the university. These electives ensure students maintain a level of academic success, are engaged on campus, and participate in service or leadership programs such as volunteer work or a mentorship program. Students will also be required to work with the University’s Career Centre where they will receive one-on-one career counseling, and attend sessions on resumé building and interview preparation.”
Regina is guaranteeing a real, not a McJob, at the end of this guarantee-stream, as is only proper, although it will be really interesting to track what is ultimately understood by “meaningful employment.” You can bet a lot of parents will be urging their children to go for the UR Guarantee. President and Vice-Chancellor Vianne Timmins is quoted on the site, saying that “In these economic times, students and their parents are more focused on the end result – a career – than ever before.” True, I never focused on a career while I was a student, and lord knows what my parents hoped or feared I’d end up doing with a degree in the Arts, but for a few decades now there has been a steady move away from appreciating the university as a site of knowledge for its own sake to seeing it as an experience through which you need to move to get to the “end result – a career. “
I know Vianne Timmins and I am delighted that she occupies that rarified club where university presidents gather. There are so few women in that club you’d hardly be able to get them all together for a round of bridge. Timmins is lively and smart, and she is probably blowing a lot of welcome fresh air through the halls of UR. Sorry: call me old-fashioned, but I can’t help but bristle at the whole Job Guarantee angle. Raised in more free-spirited times, I understand where my bristle reflex comes from. But it’s more than that. It’s a reaction to the persistent and essential undermining of the idea of the university, as a place where minds grow and mingle, where transformation happens, and where one learns that nothing in this life is guaranteed, especially wisdom, jobs, happiness, and so on. It would be “pretty,” as Hemingway once said in another context, to think that it’s the way it works, but it doesn’t.
You notice that this Guarantee program applies only to undergraduates. Graduate students aren’t going to be suckered into any such scheme, and, besides, the whole apparatus just doesn’t apply. Grad students are already on a career path to somewhere, and would not be warm to the whole idea of tailoring their degrees to include special courses aimed at the job market. Responsible grad schools already offer employment coaching, as I have mentioned in an earlier blog, and by that stage of one’s development one should know where to go for advice about the job market, if that’s where one is heading.
It’s fine to build incentives, sure, and I applaud the bravado of UR’s recruitment mission, but it is truly a sign of the millennium that we have become so end-result-outcome minded. Missing in this campaign is any emphasis on what we used to think universities were meant to be doing above all—educating people to be better thinkers, better citizens, better people. The means to the end is as important as the “end result.” It really is all about the journey and all that. When I hear people say that taking this and that course in university was a ‘waste of [their] time’ I want to stick chalk in my eyes. Nothing should be considered ‘wasted’ in one’s college experience. It’s all grist for some mill of learning.
Once universities start committing to job guarantees we are well on the path—or slippery slope—to thinning out some of our less utilitarian-based programs, to weakening the confidence in our own core curricula, the very foundation of the liberal university. I am not sure I want to see a Guarantee Job program for philosophy or Religious Studies students. Students who achieve undergraduate degrees—in any field—already have a huge advantage over those who never went to college, and year after year statistics reinforce that fact. I am not worried about a philosopher finding a job. I am concerned that a program guaranteeing jobs will look less favourably on recruiting philosophers. And without philosophers and all the rest of the vital academic programs we offer, we might as well call ourselves something else—trades college?
All of this makes me think—what next? Are we going the way of Oprah? Free cars to anyone who shows up at orientation? Travel voucher giveaways? Don’t kid yourselves. Competition is breeding some well tested gimmicks familiar to the commercial sector, and to the Mad Men of advertizing.