Things to come

Many years ago H. G. Wells wrote a book, Things To Come, forecasting an ominous future. Fortunately, most of his prophecies did not occur.

Clearly, many predictions must be treated with scepticism. Nevertheless, one can confidently predict that big changes will occur in our post-secondary institutions.

At first glance it appears that our universities are in excellent health. In worldwide rankings more than half of the top 10 leading universities in the world are in North America.

The scientific output of these institutions is without parallel. They produce an unrivalled number of prize-winning and scientific papers. Furthermore, their graduates receive a disproportionate share of income and benefits, far exceeding those who do not have a degree.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to worry about our higher education system. Heretofore a degree always was considered to be a key to a good job.

Unfortunately, except in specialized fields, that no longer is true.

Innumerable youngsters have been forced to assume large obligations over the years so a reason for anxiety stems from the heavy debt burdens they now shoulder to pay for this education. Inasmuch as universities are strapped for funds, private lending for university education has accelerated.

The cost of university per student has climbed many times the inflation rate, increasing much more than the rise in median incomes. It is somewhat surprising then that less than half of students actually complete their course with a degree.

Furthermore universities are in desperate financial straits. They have been spending far beyond their means, and their endowment funds have been depleted by excessive speculation and generally unwise investments, entailing weak balance sheets.

Not only have universities not reined in their spending, but they have engaged in “empire building”; expanding facilities – not the quality of education. Teachers’ salaries have soared even though much of the burden of teaching has fallen to graduate students. Still, as a share of GDP, university education has quadrupled. Teaching now should rely more on technology and the internet in place of huge lectures.

Declines in the quality of education have become apparent. A recent survey showed that only a quarter of graduates were considered proficient in writing and reading. The system remains mired at medieval levels.

At this point a sceptic could argue that none of this matters very much as students usually are paid a handsome premium for their degree. Yet, for example, thousands of lawyers and liberal arts graduates have not found work. Their mediocre training and economic headwinds ensure that universities simply must reform.



Bruce Whitestone