Higher education must put more emphasis on career success

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Originally appeared on the Huffington Post in November 2015.

There's no mistaking the priority among parents, students and the public these days when it comes to post-secondary education. First and foremost, they want the post-secondary programs to lead to rewarding careers.

Polling data confirms this is true. Research done earlier this year for Ontario's colleges found more than 60 per cent of respondents believe the main purpose of post-secondary education should be to teach specific skills and knowledge that can be used in the workplace.

It's easy to understand why people feel this way.

Far too many young Canadians are unemployed or underemployed. After years of post-secondary studies, too many young people graduate without the qualifications and skills to find meaningful work.

The old assumptions that a post-secondary education would automatically lead to a good job are no longer relevant. Young people today know all too well that a piece of paper is not a guarantee.

Canada's post-secondary system needs a major overhaul so that more people graduate with qualifications that align with the careers that are in demand.

This will certainly require some important shifts in policy. But what may be even more important are some fundamental changes in our approach to higher learning and how it's discussed.

Too often, when people talk about post-secondary education, they focus exclusively on universities.

The reality is post-secondary education is much broader than that. It includes a vast range of university programs, college programs, apprenticeship training - and various combinations of all three.

The hands-on training and career-specific programs at colleges are especially important.

It's becoming rare for someone to successfully enter the workforce without having included some professional and technical training as part of their education. In Ontario, for example, the number of university graduates enrolled in college programs has increased more than 50 per cent over the past five years.

Increasing numbers of students and parents get it. So do many of the jurisdictions that compete with Canada. Countries such as China and India are reforming their systems to put a greater focus on career-specific training.

This "applied" focus - providing knowledge and advanced skills that can be directly applied in the workforce - is becoming essential for most students.

Unfortunately, there are still far too many people who view "applied" areas of study as something to be frowned on. In Ontario's high schools, for example, students are divided into streams with the "applied" stream offered as a lesser alternative to the "academic" stream.

Canada must end this false narrative. In today's economy -- with its heightened demand for graduates with career-specific qualifications and skills -- academic and applied studies are both important. More students should be encouraged to attain a mix of theoretical and career-specific programs.

Politicians, the media, and other influencers must play a role in transforming Canada's approach to higher education and the programs available to students.

It's time to get past outdated ideas about university and college education and effectively promote the full range of options available in post-secondary education today.

Linda Franklin

Linda Franklin is the past president and CEO of Colleges Ontario, the advocacy association for Ontario’s 24 colleges.