Opinion: University gives students critical thinking, research skills

Relevant choices made: Graduates in engineering and computer science up 28 per cent from six years ago

By Stephen Toope, Andrew Petter, Jamie Cassels, George Iwama, Allan Cahoon, and Alan Shaver

Vancouver Sun  October 21, 2013

Students at university campuses across British Columbia are buckling down this month, working through midterm essays and exams with a keen understanding of what is at stake.

These students know they live in challenging times, facing an uncertain job market where decisions they make today will help shape the careers of their future.

These young British Columbians want to be our province’s doctors, nurses and engineers. Others have come to university to become writers, corporate managers or public servants. All of them know that the promise of their future is vastly improved by the education and experience they gather before entering into their first career-track jobs.

In a recent op-ed, Gwyn Morgan challenged the role of universities, arguing that schools across the province are graduating students with the wrong skills for today’s economy.

We agree with Morgan that everyone needs to pay careful attention to the skills and attributes we want in our future leaders and for our future economy. But we come to very different conclusions on the job that British   Columbia universities are doing to meet the demands of a changing economy.

Students are already leading the way, with many opting for the degrees they know will set them up for gratifying and successful careers. British   Columbia’s universities are eager partners in this effort, working to mentor and guide students, while providing a world-class education relevant to today’s economy and to the unknown social and economic challenges ahead.

Those combined efforts mean that our universities are now graduating 28 per cent more engineers and computer science students than we did six years ago. We are also graduating more business management students, and more students in vital areas of scientific research such as chemistry and statistics.

But it is graduates across all programs — from the sciences to the humanities — who tell the real story about the value of our province’s universities to the students and communities we serve.

Ninety-five per cent of these graduates have gone on to work in a position commensurate with their education, and recent statistics show that job growth remains faster for university graduates than for any other kind of education.

Labour market projections by the provincial government also tell a clear story about the value of a university education. They show that 78 per cent of all new jobs will require some post-secondary training, and that close to half of those will require a university education.

While we are confident in the ability of universities to train the right students for the right jobs, we firmly believe the discussion needs to be broader. A university education provides graduates with the kind of critical thinking and research skills that are valuable in all facets of life, and that help to keep our society vibrant.

Throughout our history, British Columbia’s strength has arisen from the education of its people. It is the reason we have such a wealth of engaged and thoughtful citizens, whose daily contributions to communities across our province far exceed the entries on their resumes.

Universities have played a vital role in this development, serving as a crucial launch pad to inspire and cultivate critical thinking, civic literacy and global awareness. It is why we strive in everything we do to foster the knowledge, skills and character traits that are essential to both a healthy democracy and to a competitive economy.

As students across the province toil on their papers and exams this month, we expect and demand their best work. But as educators, we also owe them our best work.

For over 100 years, British Columbia’s universities have brought out the best in our students, helping them to adapt and prosper in the face of a rapidly changing world. With our province having to excel in an increasingly competitive, global knowledge-based economy, the value of a university education has never been more important.

The authors hold the position of president and vice-chancellor as follows: Prof. Stephen J. Toope, The University of British Columbia; Prof. Andrew Petter, Simon Fraser University; Prof. Jamie Cassels, University of Victoria; Dr. George Iwama, University of Northern British Columbia; Dr. Allan Cahoon, Royal Roads University; and Dr. Alan Shaver, Thompson Rivers University.

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