Does a university undergraduate degree lead to a ‘good job?’ It depends what you mean


Universities are central to Canada’s economic growth.

As a result, governments (which partially fund them), employers (who hire graduates) and students (who pay tuition fees) have come to view universities as a tool to achieve their own goals: economic growth, a productive workforce and good jobs after graduation.

Yet, the increasing focus on training undergraduates for specific jobs or as economic entrepreneurs — not only in traditional professional degrees in STEM, such as engineering but across all university programs — shortchanges all parties involved.

Is education only to be ‘endured’?

Positioning jobs as the paramount outcome of a degree strips away opportunities for students to explore their passions and interests and instead frames education as something they must endure — as they focus on packaging themselves as marketable brands.

Even while the spectre of employment precarity and debt hang over students, and despite trends towards work-ready undergraduate programs, it’s often only after students have earned an undergraduate degree that they know their career aspirations — and seek education to bolster a workplace role that fits them.

One result is that a master’s degree is becoming the new bachelor’s degree in terms of advancing one’s employment prospects. Students who have pursued their interests during their undergraduate years enter master’s or second-entry programs with a base of general non-workplace knowledge.

This knowledge base comes not only from their undergraduate coursework or weekly job fairs. Rather, it primarily comes after taking advantage of all that universities offer without the pressures of wondering how any assignment, course or program is related to a future job.

Shifting missions and purposes today

Universities have become critical engines of national, regional and local innovation and research that have to manage new expectations from governments, employers and students. In the past decade, post-secondary institutions have also become a means to attract high-performing immigrants.

As governments link university funding to labour market outcomes using various performance measures, universities are in danger of becoming job preparation academies.

Employers seek graduates ready to enter the workplace, even while labour advocates point to stronger models for on-the-job-training seen in other countries such as Germany.

Pressures on students

Many high school students face intense pressure to be accepted into an undergraduate program that promises a good job after graduation.

Not surprisingly, given the context, many students, prodded by parents, select programs with the words such as “business,” “technology” and “information” in the title. Across Canada, humanities enrolments have declined, while applications to science, engineering and business programs have increased steadily.

These programs are oversubscribed, allowing universities to charge deregulated fees that are much higher than fees for most other undergraduate BA and B.Sc. programs. After graduation, students may find they are qualified for highly competitive entry-level positions that scarcely appeal to their interests.

Education as tool?

Until the mid-1970s, unemployment rates were low. Many graduates found jobs relatively easily after graduation as the economy boomed and the public sector — such as education — expanded.

Any program of study would most likely lead to a job, and to further opportunities.

The reverse is the case now: competition for good jobs is fierce and sometimes international in nature, resulting in intensive economic and social pressure.

Understandably, most young people have come to view university education as instrumental: a tool to gain a good job.

Yet as education researcher Roy Y. Chan shows, a growing misalignment exists between the “pragmatic, instrumental goals and aims” of students and the reality of universities’ renegotiating their contemporary missions and mandates. All the while, this is happening amid increasing financial pressure and new post-secondary funding models.

The meaning of a ‘good job’

A good first job after graduation is one that fits the temperament of the person and reflects a degree of self-knowledge of what they can commit to working hard at. “Good jobs” immediately after graduation are not necessarily those that have the highest pay or prestige.

Promoting an undergraduate education to young people as a step — if not the most critical step — to entering the workforce is misleading.

Both government and universities must rethink the role of the undergraduate degree, and employers should not expect job-ready candidates immediately after the undergraduate convocation ceremony.

Learning how to learn

Universities, governments and employers must communicate to Canada’s young people, and future leaders, that a large part of the value of their undergraduate degree, whichever degree they choose, lies in taking advantage of all the opportunities for learning that universities offer.

A university education is an investment, but primarily one in learning how to learn. A university education should teach students how to: be curious, follow passions, debate and ask questions, forge friendships, pursue passions and understand oneself and one’s place in the world.

Young people with such a mindset in their education are poised to flourish in university and in the workplace.

Author Bio: Thomas Klassen is Professor, School of Public Policy and Administration at York University, Canada