The university system has its problems. Students invest a lot of time and money in education but all too often don’t get what they came for. In What’s Wrong With University, Jeff Rybak addresses the most pressing concerns for undergraduate students, and helps them cope with the university system. He illustrates the university as having five distinct functions, which are often in conflict with each other. Students often find themselves at cross purposes with those with different goals and motivations, and also with institutional features designed around the needs of those other students. As a result they are frequently frustrated by their experiences, lost in a system that isn’t suited to them. Jeff explains how university really works, and provides advice on how all students can overcome these internal conflicts to get what they most want from the university experience.
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About the Author
JEFF RYBAK graduated in 2006 from the University of Toronto Scarborough, where he served in the students’ union as Vice-President Academics and within campus governance as Chair of the Academic Committee. He spent many hours counseling students on how to deal with all aspects of university, and was responsible for the production of several resources for students, including three editions of the campus Anti-Calendar. Jeff is currently a director on the board of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), and lives in Toronto.
Read an Excerpt
What's Wrong With University
and how to make it work for you anyway
By Jeff Rybak, Emily Schultz
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2007 Jeff Rybak
All rights reserved.
THE FUNCTIONS OF EDUCATION
What Happens in a School
In order to understand university as it currently exists, it seems reasonable that we should take a moment to look at education as a whole, and figure out just what is being done and why. I don't intend to dwell on high school and elementary school, but when discussing education it's useful to remember that distinctions between various levels are artificial. High school ends after an arbitrary number of years and then university begins. A student goes to college or trade school to pursue one field of study but goes to university to learn another. Obviously these distinctions are the result of policy decisions, and can shift. Very recently in Ontario, a student would attend high school for five years but now it's four. Everything shifted to accommodate that change. Our system of education, as a whole, serves various different roles at different times, so let's take a moment to look at all of what education does in broad terms. Then we can apply these ideas about education to what's going on at university.
The Holding Pen
In a real sense, especially for children, school provides a place to be that isn't at home, perhaps so both parents can work, or to give the homemaker a break. It's a place to be for anyone too young to enter the workforce. And as those kids grow into teenagers and young adults, the issue of when they are "old enough" to enter the workforce proves rather fluid. Realistically, they're old enough when the job market is ready to absorb them.
An interesting way to look at this "holding pen" concept is by referring to enrollment statistics in high school during periods of economic expansion, or recession and depression. As the job market dries up, as in the 1930s, teenagers stay in school longer. When job opportunities rebound, as in the late 1940s, students have less incentive to be in school. It isn't simply that students are dropping out because they are lured by the prospect of good wages; it's only a matter of how long they have to wait to get the same jobs they were heading toward anyway. A strong economy creates openings sooner rather than later. And in the meanwhile, kids stay in school because they've got to do something and education will help them compete down the road.
So is it only younger kids and teenagers who are in school because they have to be somewhere? I will argue that it absolutely is not, and that a lot of people stay in school through their late teens and into their early to mid twenties simply because there's no place for them in the workforce, or at least no place they are willing to accept. The only question is at what point that ends.
Teaching Good Citizenry
"Good citizenry" is a wide set of ideas I am lumping together — generally all of the things students learn in school that contribute to being better members of society. We associate citizenry all the time with early school, where kids learn to share, play nice, and work well with others. We also tend to believe there are some certain basic skills people require in order to function as full members of society, skills like literacy and essential math. These things are taught in school as a benefit to the students, certainly, but also for the good of society as a whole.
This function of early education also has a parallel that occurs in post-secondary schooling and this is often at the centre of the public funding debate. Is the higher education of someone good for society as a whole, entirely apart from direct economic results? Does a student in higher education learn social responsibility? Community involvement? In a democratic state founded on the principle of citizen involvement, these are not idle questions. Once again, what may seem to be a function of only early school touches on later schooling as well, right into university and other kinds of higher education.
Certification of Basic Competence
One function of education is to train generally competent people, and to certify their abilities. This level of education has often been associated with a high school diploma. Beyond necessary life skills, this is the level of qualification that seems to suggest a student has gained certain basic abilities such as work ethic, analytic skills, an ability with written and spoken language, etc. Not to say that a person without a diploma lacks these skills, simply that the certificate formally recognizes them.
Certification of basic competence is possibly the biggest contribution that the education system makes to the private sector. Employers, obviously, have a strong vested interest in being able to identify potential employees who have this basic competence. And more besides, but I'll touch later on credentialism.
Now, let me reiterate what I mean by a certification of basic competence. This is the thing you put on your resumé as your base level of education. This is the degree that opens most employment doors (at least enough to apply) unless the job requires specialized knowledge or training. At one time this was a high-school diploma. No longer.
The current form of this certificate of competence is a university undergraduate degree or a college diploma. Some undergraduate degrees and college diplomas are also more than this, and include directed job skills aimed at specific careers, but a typical Bachelor of Arts or Science degree or a general arts diploma is just that. It gets your foot in the door. No more and no less.
To discuss directed job training, I quite deliberately use a term that frequently conjures negative associations. What is vocational training? Training for a vocation, obviously — it's learning directed at landing and performing a specific kind of job. The words "vocational training" apply to the study of plumbing, journalism, computer programming, and dentistry, as well as any other kind of education you pursue in order to perform a specific job.
The major difference between various forms of vocational training is that some — such as dentistry — require a certificate of competence before you can begin these programs. Others — such as journalism — you might take as part of a certification of competence. Still others — such as plumbing — you might learn through apprenticeship, and outside of formal education entirely. But despite varying levels of status, income, and prestige associated with these jobs, the learning required to perform them is all vocational training. So what's the difference between a vocation and a profession? Income and status and not a lot else. Even income is an inconsistent standard, because a skilled tradesperson will outearn a lot of professionals who are accorded more respect at your average cocktail party.
Obviously education is concerned with vocational training. This is now primarily at the post-secondary level, though secondary schools have long experimented with alternative academic programming aimed at those students not bound for further education in order to give them some employable skills. This is probably where the term "vocational training" gets its negative associations. At the high-school level, at least, it's often viewed as a sort of remedial program, and perhaps even implemented as one. Despite these negative associations toward vocational training in high school, everyone knows and acknowledges that one of the reasons to go to university is to get a job, often a very specific job.
Pursuit of Knowledge
So what about learning something just for the sake of learning? This can happen at any level of education and common sense dictates the best students are inevitably the ones who are really interested in what they are learning, but this is almost always presented as a subordinate motivation to reach some other goal. Every teacher, from kindergarten upward, is concerned with finding ways to make learning fun. But these teachers are still pushing a set curriculum of what students are supposed to learn, and what's good for them. In university, probably for the first time, students encounter an environment that will validate almost any kind of learning or field of study, subject to standards of rigor and approach. Many professional academics work for their entire lives on research — supported through grants and teaching positions — that has no immediate practical application. But is that all there is to it?
Every student who comes to university and chooses to study something in whole or in part just because they are interested in it is involved in the pursuit of knowledge. It's rather alarming how natural it is to describe such a student as being "just interested" in a subject, as though that's a rather trivial reason to be in school. Why "just?" Many students study particular subjects out of interest but some are understandably sensitive about it. They tend to get questions like, "What are you going to do with that?" And everyone, of course, eventually has to confront the question of how to find work and put food on the table.
At the highest levels, the pursuit of knowledge and the need for a vocation eventually collide. Stay in school long enough and you end up as a professional (remember, that's code for "vocational") academic. And that's where professors come from. But it takes a lot of years beyond the undergraduate level to end up there and we're primarily interested in undergraduate university right now. Still, keep in mind that many professors are just students who never left university. It's a useful way to think of them.
"University" is such a loaded word. It describes many things at once, and many different people engaged in different sorts of work for unrelated reasons. In the sections to follow, I'll introduce some specific terms aimed at dividing university into particular functions and groupings of people that we can discuss separately, but for now let's look at the whole, and summarize, in rough terms, what is going on here.
First, university serves as a holding pen. When the average student finishes high school and realizes that the job prospects with a high-school diploma are basically flipping burgers or making lattes, university seems like the obvious alternative for anyone able to attend. I don't mean to deride the service sector, and I certainly don't mean to exclude those exceptional self-made success stories that are still happening today, I just want to clearly state that the high-school diploma is no longer the certification of basic competence that it once was. Other than as a gateway to higher education, it no longer opens many doors at all. When it comes to shopping around the job market, a high-school diploma is barely worth the paper it's printed on because almost any job that can be had with just a high-school diploma (typically not a good one) can be had just as easily without one. So students go to university, on some levels, for the same reason they attended kindergarten. They don't yet have a place to be (in this case, in the workforce) and need to be somewhere.
Second, university is that certification of basic competence that high school once was. Quite a lot of students go to university, graduate from some Bachelor of Arts or Science program, and then go on to careers entirely unrelated to what they studied, except that the degree opened the door for them. This is not at all unprecedented. It wasn't so very long ago that Latin was a required course in Ontario high schools. So when a high-school diploma was the certificate of basic competence, did that mean employers were looking for employees who could read Latin? Of course not. And when a student with a B.A. in English goes on to work in the business field, it isn't because a thorough knowledge of Shakespeare is much help either. It's what the degree represents more than the substance of the course content, and no matter what area that degree is in, it can and should pay off eventually.
Third, university is a continuation of the lessons of good citizenry begun in early schooling. This aspect is sometimes difficult to see from outside university life, but can be very obvious from within it. There is a reason political movements — everything from gender equity, environmental causes, and voting reform — are based around university campuses. There is a reason student leaders are often at the forefront of social change. The university environment provides, for those who look for it, an opportunity to practice in immediate and meaningful terms the sort of citizen involvement that forms the basis of a healthy democracy. Not every student will take advantage of this, and some might not even see it around them as they pass from class to class, but the atmosphere is there all the same — even in the most anemic university environments.
Fourth, university provides vocational training or preparation for it. This is the part of university that people most often see. This is the part of university that the private sector wants to get their hooks into. Take any industry that isn't subject to professional regulation as an example. Journalism is a textbook case. Why is a university degree, or college diploma, required to practice journalism? Simply because no media publisher is eager to hire a journalist without some kind of degree, unless he or she is already known as a writer. This wasn't always the case. My major point is that it's a self-regulating standard. The journalism industry, by virtue of demanding that any job applicant attend college or university in order to become a journalist, has effectively handed a monopoly over the gateway to the industry to colleges and universities. And that's interesting.
Finally, university serves as a place where people — whether students or faculty — pursue knowledge for its own sake. Depending on whose opinion you ask, this can be the majority of what universities do even today, or it can be a minor function left over from less productive days before universities really got down to the business of producing employable units. I believe that, while few students in university today are occupied in the pursuit of knowledge exclusive to other goals, this activity still forms a background priority in the purposes of many other students. The majority of those whose goals are purely job-oriented have not turned their backs entirely on the established wisdom of finding a job that interests them, and any student that is interested in his or her subject is engaged, to some extent, in learning for its own sake. So this aspect of university is certainly not gone, it's just tangled up with a lot of other priorities, much like the institution itself.
Why Go to University?
Nothing aggravates me more than talking about university with people who don't even know why they are there. It isn't the students who annoy me, it's the entire idea that anyone could go through high school, talk with guidance counsellors, teachers, friends, and family, could apply for government loans and sign into debt, and still not have an answer as to why it happened. It isn't the students who have failed, it's the entire system. It seems incredible to think that anyone could invest years of time, and tens of thousands of dollars, with no clear purpose to justify all that effort and expense, but it happens all the time.
Some students will claim they've gone to university to "be successful." That isn't an answer. Success means lots of different things to different kinds of people and in many cases it doesn't require university at all. If you want to study something because you are really interested in it, then say that. If you are looking for a specific kind of job, then say that instead. But acting as though university is the one and only ticket to success in life is both simplistic and flawed. It's another way of saying you went to university because you were scared not to, and you're not quite sure why you are there, but you know the alternatives aren't attractive. That's an answer too, though a problematic and potentially dangerous one.
It's never too late or too early to ask the important questions, so let's start with this one. Why go to university? I've suggested broad categories of the various things university is and does, so presumably if you've gone to university you are there to get one or more of those things. Let's look at them again.
Excerpted from What's Wrong With University by Jeff Rybak, Emily Schultz. Copyright © 2007 Jeff Rybak. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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