You can’t dictate what knowledge is valuable

Of the guest columnists in the Comment section of the Advocate, a byline I particularly like to follow is that of Gwyn Morgan.

Of the guest columnists in the Comment section of the Advocate, a byline I particularly like to follow is that of Gwyn Morgan. He’s an Albertan who has achieved business success and his opinions are a healthy mix of practical business and social studies.

But his article on Monday, When skills, jobs at odds, stands as a good example of why business leaders can create rather poor public policy.

Morgan believes so strongly in the correctness of a skills model for higher education that he sets aside his belief in freedom of choice.

He also attempts to dictate the roles of our colleges and universities. And while doing so, he just adds more rotation to a failed practice of professional associations chasing their tails.

You can’t dictate what kind of learning is good and what kind is useless, and then wonder why the university graduates who listened to you can’t find jobs in their field of study.

Alberta seems to cycle through oversupply and shortage of all kinds of professional skills, like the rotation of an oilsands bucket wheel.

If borrowing $30,000 (plus savings and summer employment earnings) for a basic degree is a good investment, Morgan points to a CIBC study that says tacking on another $25,000 or more for an advanced degree is even better.

But the CIBC statisticians (and Morgan) might have done better to poll the grads themselves.

Doctor shortage? Not any more. As of 2010, Canada had 70,000 working physicians. That was 203 per 100,000 people, up 35 per cent since we recognized the shortage in 1980.

New physicians, graduating with enormous debt, can’t make student loan payments, house payments and set up a practice on a new physician’s salary. So they are going back to school for the specialties that pay better — and then find they can’t find a clinic that will take them on and they’re back in general practice.

Alberta has a high proportion of nurses with science degrees. But barely more than 30 per cent of our nurses have a full-time job (it’s over 60 per cent for the rest of Canada). Monday’s Advocate actually had an ad for full-time nursing positions. How many new grads will even have their applications read for those gems? Not many, if any, I suspect.

In the skills that Morgan cherishes, engineers are finding long waits to land an engineering job. Two-thirds of our graduating engineers end up working in a field outside of engineering, almost 30 per cent of them in “survival jobs,” according to the Council for Access to the Profession of Engineering.

How many lawyers are too many in a society? The answer, it seems, is about the number we have right now.

The hunt for unpaid articling positions is extremely competitive, and the prospects for young lawyers to move up the ladder in their firms is not great. But we graduate more and more each year.

These are in the professions that restrict the number of students who can enter, but the demand for entry is way beyond what the professions can bear.

Alberta has one school for dental hygienists. At the University of Alberta, entrants must first complete one year of a regular university program, and they only take about 40 new students a year.

So what happens? An 18-month program in Ottawa is 70 per cent Alberta students.

You can’t tell students which careers they should pursue, and you can’t tell universities where they should be putting all their resources.

The CIBC report rather snorted about the practicality of a degree in medieval history. Morgan suggests that humanities classes with only 10 students ought to be cut outright. But a more rational approach says they should be kept — or even expanded.

For most students, these are not their core programs; they are options that students in science, arts, and education can take to round out their studies, to develop a rational world view. That’s what makes a university degree different than a tech school diploma.

A technician monitoring the readouts at a gas plant will make more money than a new lawyer, teacher and perhaps even a new doctor. So will a welder with experience and a willingness to work long shift rotations far from home.

That’s the money market. The knowledge market runs on different parameters. Life is more than just gaining the biggest possible paycheque.

Morgan claims that our ivory towers are graduating students without “foundation knowledge” as he puts it, while expecting businesses to fill the gaps.

That’s backwards thinking, in my view. The “foundation knowledge” is taught in the programs Morgan says have no value.

The middle way, it seems, lies in programs like Red Deer College’s Donald School of Business, in apprenticeship and trades programs — alongside the humanities.

Besides, decades of pushing the professions is resulting in decades of indentured labour from highly-qualified people who can’t find jobs to match their training.

But if you try to dictate through control of the budget process which programs are useful and which are not, you will only end up chasing your tail.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at or email