(What) to Be, or What not to Be

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO of Educational Policy Institute

This past week I was privileged to speak with the faculty and Board of Governors of Fanshawe College in London, Ontario. Fanshawe College is an example of a decades-old institution that has undergone massive growth in the new millennium. Today, Fanshawe serves 16,000 full-time students and approximately 30,000 part-time students. The campus is immaculate; state-of-the-art, with many buildings under five years of age. It is a pleasant site. It feels more like a university than a college.

Fanshawe, like many other institutions, wants to stay ahead of the curve. But that’s particularly challenging to do when you aren’t sure what the curve is. Think about it: the community college, more than university level for sure, is more vocationally aligned to the workforce than any other level. But that only helps if you understand how the vocational world is shifting. Sure, we know that manufacturing has offshored, but that leaves a whole lot of business and industry to consider. We are often told that, in this knowledge society, employees will be required to shift jobs multiple times, and even shift careers. Economists and policymakers boasted about people changing jobs every 3-5 years, and that they would have 7 “careers” in their lives. That was dramatic thinking on their behalf, and those types of statements play well in MacLean’s and Time magazine. This discussion is akin to the boasting of 70-80 hour work weeks—almost no one does it, but for some insane reason, it is an ego stroker to suggest you work harder than the next person. There is nothing wonderful about working that much harder because it has an ego charge to it—I think that means you aren’t doing your job well enough, for the most part.

In education, it is SO easy for policymakers, philanthropists, and others to suggest that we “just need more.” We need more BAs. We need more postsecondary education. I only agree to these statements IF we quantify what we mean by higher education. I don’t think we need more BAs, necessarily, but we do need better-trained workers on all levels, especially traditional blue collar jobs. And yes, those workers need postsecondary education to survive in this economy. But they don’t need a BA, and perhaps not an AA.

At Fanshawe, the Board of Governors wants to know how to prepare for the future economic needs of the province of Ontario, and how this need connects with those across Canada and North America. In this global economy, what does it mean to have a certificate and degree from their institution as opposed to other institutions around the world?

The answer isn’t clear or direct. As one presenter noted at the Board of Governors’ meeting, looking into the crystal ball of the economic and workforce future is tricky business. The Mayor of small-town Stratford, Ontario, best known for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, explained to us how the town has leveraged its support of the arts into digital media. Technology has allowed the town to reinvent itself, but still capitalize on its arts agenda. Who knew a generation ago that digital media (what possibly was digital media?) would be such a huge area of growth in the labor market, and that institutions would be clamoring to get into the game. But this is a clear example that we don’t necessarily know what is on the horizon for workers and employers.

That being the case, what training and programming do we provide at colleges and universities? How focused are we on specific models of learning and content, when the content shifts beneath our feet? To me, all of this suggests that we need to move toward a more liberal arts-type of education in postsecondary education. This is not to suggest that pipefitters need to take classes analyzing the complete works of Margaret Lawrence (which would be deathly!) or Margaret Atwood (less so deathly, but still requiring a visit to the ICU), but there probably has to be some middle ground in teaching students how to evolve along their career and personal trajectory. We’ve talked about this for a long time—teaching people how to learn. But we’ve never really done it.

Peter Smith, currently of Kaplan Higher Education who also served as founding President of CSU Monterey Bay, Dean of Education at The George Washington University, and former Congressman from Vermont, says in his new book, Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent, that the Business Round Table and Chamber of Commerce surveys show that employers are looking for three key skill sets: (1) workers who can “self-direct” and adapt; (2) workers with a global perspective; and (3) workers who can think critically and write (p. 13).

But we haven’t remotely prepared students with those skills in most higher education, and I would argue that we don’t do it well in secondary education. We still stuff the same ‘ol curricula down the throats of students of all ages. At some point we need to do what we’ve said we need to do—teach them to learn. Give students the skills to navigate change, analyze need, and find the path toward personal success.

For institutions, it means listening more to stakeholders beyond their doors. Institutions must continually assess need while simultaneously tweaking their programs and curricula. It means acting like industry—be prepared to turn when turns are demanded, but doing so in a fashion that does not erode the foundation of the organization and leave it rudderless. Being proactive while ensuring stability. It’s a tough row to hoe, but it is the option for success.

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