College versus university? A false dichotomy

Provost Christopher Manfredi takes on the ongoing nrrative that universities offer an impractical education, unsuited to the real-world needs of today’s labour market. "It is a good story, but one that simply is not true," writes the Provost.
Professor Christopher Manfredi, a 26-year veteran of McGill, will assume his position as Provost on July 1, 2015. / Photo: Owen Egan
“In the global knowledge economy, this nation’s workforce must possess a variety of skills, which will be mastered in a variety of post-secondary institutions,” writes Provost Christopher Manfredi. / Photo: Owen Egan

By Christopher Manfredi

The debate on the outcomes for university versus college/trade graduates has been quietly simmering for the past few years. Often angry opinion pieces in Canada’s newspapers suggest that “too many of our kids are going to university,” and talk about the “skills gap,” which leads to poor job prospects for university students. Increasingly, the popular narrative is that universities offer an impractical education, unsuited to the real-world needs of today’s labour market.

It is a good story, but one that simply is not true. In the fight for scarce post-secondary dollars, it is understandable that college proponents and university advocates will argue their cases, as I will do here. But ultimately, college-versus-university is a false dichotomy. In the global knowledge economy, this nation’s workforce must possess a variety of skills, which will be mastered in a variety of post-secondary institutions. In response to widespread misinformation, let’s look at some of the myths about universities:

Drop-outs make the best entrepreneurs? According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, the level of entrepreneurship in Canada rises with education level, peaking at those holding advanced graduate degrees. It would be interesting to see the education levels among entrepreneurs who have created “gazelles” – the new, high-growth firms that are so key to a knowledge economy.

A university degree doesn’t prepare you for the workforce? In 2014, Statistics Canada issued a report (“Graduating in Canada”), that looked at the labour market outcomes of 2009-10 graduates. About 80 per cent of both college and university bachelor graduates reported that their education was relevant to their job, three years after leaving postsecondary studies. However, the proportion rose sharply among advanced degree holders, with 92 per cent of master’s and 96 per cent of PhD recipients responding that their education matched their job. A widespread skills gap in Canada is a myth thoroughly debunked by a 2013 TD Economics Study.

College grads get better jobs? Only three years after graduation, bachelor’s degree holders with full-time employment make a median income of $53,000, compared to $41,600 for college graduates. That is more than an $11,000 gap. Further, holders of master’s and doctoral degrees make $28,400 and $33,400 more than college graduates. Although employment rates for college and university graduates are fairly comparable (90 per cent and 92 per cent respectively), holders of university degrees are more likely to be employed full time. And those figures are for the cohort looking for work in an economy rocked by the 2008 global meltdown.

There are more jobs for college grads? The number of new jobs in Canada requiring a university degree dramatically outpaces those requiring a college credential, according to a Stats Can Labour Force Survey: Between 2008 and 2015, our economy created twice the net new jobs for university graduates than for college and trades graduates combined.

University grads need to go to college to learn “real” skills? Some interpret the fact that 13 per cent of current college enrollees already hold a degree as a failure of universities to prepare students adequately for the labour market. The flow goes both ways, however: 12 per cent of bachelor’s graduates in 2009-10 had completed a college or trade program before starting their university degree. Learning has changed, and is now a life-long endeavour.

We need fewer university graduates? Despite the clear benefits of a university education, Canada’s performance on the international scene is worrying. While Canada sits at the top of 16 peer countries in terms of the percentage of the working-age population holding a college degree, a recent assessment by the Conference Board of Canada shows that it ranks 7th for university degrees and only 15th out of 16th for PhD graduates. Canada needs university graduates more than ever – though that does not mean it needs fewer college graduates.

Attempting to knock down universities to boost colleges – or vice versa – does a disservice to students and Canada. To help our country succeed in a competitive global economy, we need more data on longer-term job outcomes, entrepreneurship and high-growth firms. We need to communicate those facts more widely so that students, parents, employers, educators and policy makers all know those facts and make informed choices. Above all, our country needs investment to sustain strong universities and strong colleges.

Christopher Manfredi is the Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) of McGill.

A version of this editorial first appeared in the Globe and Mail


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8 years ago

what do you know, a reporter from Mcgill UNIVERSITY wrote this article. Half of the people who go to university can’t define university.

8 years ago

The great debate. Answer this, what education do the instructors required to have to teach college? Perhaps a teaching certificate? Also, why cant the students buy supplies at regular stores instead of forcing the kids to run up the nice new credit cards they were given? How many of the courses are so specific that there might be 10 jobs across Canada? check your facts before you post the greatness of the ridiculous money grab that they really are. wake up Canada, we dont have proper education opportunities here. The Colleges are not better than Universities. Half the time the… Read more »

7 years ago

Fact #1: Between March 2008 and March 2016, 1,416,600 new jobs were created for university graduates — almost triple as many new jobs for college and trades graduates combined. Fact #2: There were 979,000 full-time students and 312,000 part-time students in 2014-2015. 2016-2008 = 8 years. If the average degree takes 4 years, that is 979k*2 + 312k*2 = 2.6 Million graduates in 8 years but only 1.4 M jobs created, that is 800k university graduates looking for work and suppressing the wages of those who are likely to be paying student loans. Can the same be said for college… Read more »

7 years ago

* Only 17% of trades international students stay.