Youth (un)employment can be analyzed from various perspectives. Ken S. Coates and Bill Morrison chose the university and college systems as their focus in Dream Factories. Why Universities Won’t Solve the Youth Job Crisis (Toronto: TAP Books, 2016, 231 pages). The book is a collaborative effort of two university professors who together have been in higher education for almost 100 years, and they have researched colleges and universities for almost that long, so their academic credentials seem to stand on a solid ground.
The book is a well-developed indictment against the inability of today’s degree-granting institutions of higher learning to provide support, instruction, and preparation for young people to find and land a job. Although concentrating on the Canadian and US higher learning systems, the book makes it clear that world-wide, the situation is woefully similar (examples are given from the universities in China, Brazil, and various European and North African countries). According to the authors, there are three reasons for the existing enthusiasm for higher education, which, however, are not reflected in the realities of the world of work: 1) sustained evidence that a university degree produces highly beneficial results, if not for everyone, at least on average, 2) major shifts in the industrial workforce, 3) changing attitudes towards work/physical labor (pp. 41-42). Not every graduate, however, enjoys the realization of the dream: specifically, arts majors earn less than unionized heavy-duty mechanics, graduates from lesser-known or non-elite universities struggle to find jobs even if their field is finance, law, or economics, or the tech sector. Many graduates work part-time without benefits. The following reasons underpin the tragic ineffectiveness of universities and colleges:
- they are reticent to change their mission, which, expressed in various ways, usually means to expand the mind, improve public discourse, celebrate the world of ideas (p. 16), i.e. they are not job factories,
- they are very expensive businesses which rely on government funding per student, so they are forced to accept candidates irrespective of their preparation, stamina, competitiveness, and willingness to study,
- their status is vastly overrated by the parents’ and society’s interpretation of the no-longer valid equation Education = Employment (or learning = earning),
- they were seen as the only way to riches during the post-WW2 era, especially the 1960s, but this dream no longer holds true, since “knowledge economy” replaced natural resources and industry as the foundation for national and personal prosperity (pp. 20-21),
- they mass-produce graduates in a way that is disconnected from the needs of the modern economy (21), so they are not responsive to the job market,
- they (often for-profit universities) employ unscrupulous recruitment procedures and do not inform the prospective students truthfully,
- they have to follow the governmental push for accessibility, so they make the point that admission is not a guarantee of graduation (admit everyone and then cull the number to a manageable level in the first year),
- they accept foreign students (whose tuition fees are double or more than the regular ones) who may or may not stay in the country they studied in and therefore may not contribute to that country’s prosperity,
- they allow credentialism to be rampant,
- they do not appear to correct “the serious problems with the students’ basic skills, limited curiosity, lack of commitment to studies, and disengagement from learning as a whole” (64),
- they pave the way for those faculty members who engage in research and publish; university administrators emphasize political correctness and sensitivity to issues of gender, class, etc.: “The struggle to reassert the primacy of college teaching is shaping up as one of the epic professional battles of the twenty-first century” (64),
- the “dream factories” make parents save relentlessly, force students to get into horrible amounts of debt, without any specific, concrete return on this “investment”. “This is gambling of the highest order.” (p. 79).
There are numerous other reasons for the inefficiencies and out-of-synch status of higher education, including the demise of the American Dream, the rampant inequalities, the obvious lack of drive and interest on the part of students to learn for learning’s sake, the change in the job market, off-shoring, globalization, excessive naiveté of parents, shirking of responsibilities of governments, nonexistence of the desire of excellence, and many others. Of course, a number of caveats are discussed. Firstly, there is the fact that most “elite” universities do choose the caliber of the student (for ex., Harvard accepts fewer than 7% of applicants; p. 50), and these institutions attempt to go with the market flow and support studies in technology. Secondly, the statement that graduates do eventually find jobs is misleading, since this may involve driving taxis or serve hamburgers, so statistics are not a reliable measure to support the old adage learning=earning. Thirdly, data about those who drop out with debt burdens do not appear in the glossy universities brochures.
What suggestions do Coates and Morrison offer in order to bridge the gap between the universities and job market?
The situation, though grim in general, certainly is not without hope for the individuals. Thus, as a response to the realities of twenty-first century education and work, we offer the following ideas. First, parental and youth expectations need to be reined in – not everyone is going to be a rich professional. Second, the fixation on colleges and universities as the focus for youth aspirations must be drastically reduced. Third, these institutions must be reformed to make them more responsive to public needs. And fourth, the debate about the future of youth must be reoriented away from colleges and universities toward a more realistic view of twenty-first century job creation. (p. 138)
“Responding to the needs of the economy” and “relying on market forces to reshape programs” (pp. 146-147), needing “to be responsive to job market conditions” (149) are suggestions which dramatically underscore the seemingly desired pragmatic purpose of higher education, according to the authors. Technical education (polytechnics) is likely the one to embark on, as well as education which provides highly skilled workers.
Moreover, there are routs to avoid university education, such as applying to companies which offer ad hoc skill training, i.e. firm-specific job training, on-line accredited short courses, open to everyone irrespective of their educational level, thus by-passing university education altogether: “companies do not need colleges and universities to identify, hire, and train top-flight employees.” (160) From this perspective,then, it behooves the modern universities to focus on the career-readiness of their graduates. The authors suggest that “it is vital that families, with young people fully engaged, pay more attention … to the evolving North American and global economy” (180). They give the example of the fact that five years ago, a career in petroleum engineering was the best way to prepare for the future; however, the prices and demand for oil collapsed, the good jobs disappeared, so that career path is not the right one for today. The same path was followed by the financial sector. “Given all this, parents and young adults have to do the best that they can to prepare themselves for future uncertainty” (182). Possible creation of job openings from today’s perspective is in the care of the elderly, blue-collar work including the trades, technology, digitalization. However, the future is uncertain, and “the promises of degrees seemingly perfectly aligned with the modern economy often prove illusory” (186). Words for parents: “Prepare your children for uncertainty. … Prepare them to be future makers, not future takers” (214).
The book is of course much more comprehensive as to the woes of the higher education system and to the possibilities of making it right than can be detailed here. What follows is my critique of some of the content as well as certain assumptions which I found problematic. The whole book is built on the premise that overall, things will go on as they have been for the past 10-15 years now: there will be governments which will function as they have been, there will be the job market which will dictate the fate of billions of people, and there will be amazing entrepreneurs who will model their behavior for young people. It is therefore understandable that Coates and Morrison can state openly that higher education institutions should provide young adults with the means to satisfy the needs of the economy. This is a troubling statement for two reasons: it assumes that humans are born to fill the needs of the market economy (!) and it does not take into account that whatever job one may hold, that job is surely to be filled sooner or later by an AI, since it is cheaper for companies to employ robots rather than humans. If the only mission of universities and colleges is to successfully prepare young people for a job in the market economy, this process will certainly be taken over by a smart AI which will produce robots who can fill those jobs cheaper and faster. This is, after all, at the heart of the question of the universities’ existence: what do they have to provide, to whom, and at what cost? The answers offered in the book are deceptively simple: provide a set of skills (that the market requires), provide this not to everyone, and have governments and employers pay for it. Unfortunately, the authors do not delve into the nitty-gritty details of the manner in which this is to be achieved.
In many instances, reliable data is not quoted in order to make certain claims: it is disturbing that some notions expressed in the book lack a clear source of information. Specifically, these notions revolve around 1) the arts programs, 2) i. children and language as well as ii. children and averages, 3) students from wealthy backgrounds, 4) students accepted to the university but not suitable for it.
As for 1), it is disconcerting that arts programs are seen as offering a lower quality of instruction: “Smart applicants realize that they can often apply for a low-demand program, sadly, in the arts at most institutions, and wrangle a transfer later into a high-demand offering, like business” (51). Anyone working in the faculty of arts can vouch for the fact that certain arts disciplines are not only rigorous but also provide a measuring stick by which excellence is easily demonstrated: it’s enough to mention foreign languages, literatures and cultures in this instance.
2) i. The authors state that children of professionals “hear thirty-two million more words by the age of four than those of parents on welfare” (70), but they never cite the source of this information. 2) ii. It may be true that we live in an age of egregiously spoiled children (54), but to claim that “By definition, half of all children are below average ; not all of them achieve great things” (173) without citing the source of the number does not add to our understanding of the meaning of the term “average”.
3) The authors claim that “Students from wealthy backgrounds end up wealthy themselves” (70); again there is no indication of the meaning of “wealthy” or in fact how does this bear on the woes of the university.
4) I personally have said on many occasions that 3/4 of my students should not have been accepted to the university, and my fraction is just an impressionistic figure due to my experience, so I was struck that the authors state that 75% of enrolled students do not belong to the university. I would have loved to see who came up with made this statistics and what criteria they used to come up with it. In any case, the number can simply show that not everyone is or can be made a university candidate.
The volume does not clearly state the responsibilities of the government, parents, job market for the education and future employment of young people. Governments (partially) fund universities, but they “have surrendered educational decisions to the collective choices of high school graduates and their parents” (194), allowing these choices to be costly, and haphazard. Parents tend to cling to the traditional idea that universities will provide a great paying job. Job markets work in unison with some elite universities but that touches only a small fraction of university students.
In conclusion, this book will surely make all readers think seriously not only about the role and value of the modern university, but also about the significance and purpose of the job market. There is no definition of “public needs” in this volume, so it is hoped that this will spark a serious and substantial discussion about whether, in fact, universities should exist. If institutions are to prepare young people for jobs, these institutions exist already, and they are the trade schools, 2-year colleges, ad hoc training schools for specific companies, various on-line degree granting courses, etc. As it is now – and this is my strong belief – students do not need to attend university to become pharmacists, doctors, lawyers, teachers, computer programmers, or AI researchers – they could learn all these things in less time, cheaper, and in a more focused manner. Workers in all of these jobs, however, can be and will be replaced by robots. The university should exist, but its study length should be two years, and the academic work should be devoted to those activities which humans, to keep being humans, ought to find pleasure in: access to and thinking deeply about ideas, and a fertile ground for unbridled imagination about numerous subjects and for no particular purpose. In case the students have a job, no job market will offer these to them, and in case they will be out of a job, they will have these to fall back onto.