The New Crisis in Higher Education
Canadian universities are on the front lines as an essential service equipping Canadians to face the demanding realities of the new world of work.
University education has a major role to play in mitigating the fallout effects of the COVID-19 crisis and in making Canadians as competitive as possible in the new world of work. The pressures of the new economic environment existed and were already being felt by Canadians before the onset of COVID-19.
Competition for jobs is at an all-time high across all sectors of the economy. This competition is not only local, but international. With the rise of globally-networked digital economies, workers face more pressure than ever to earn and secure a living. New forms of automation are another factor driving down opportunities and driving up job insecurity. Jobs at both the high and the low end of skills and training are being phased out by automation at a rapid pace. For example, in 2017, Adidas began 3-D printing shoes at two “speed factories”; ride-share and taxi companies are experimenting with driverless cars; financial analysts are being replaced by platformized algorithms. Workers who do not have the ability to adapt and meet these challenges are left behind. Access to education that allows the maximum potential for agility among the workforce is absolutely key for stability and growth at any time, but especially now.
According to the World Bank Group’s World Development Report 2019: The Changing Nature of Work, the United Nation Conference on Trade and Development’s Digital Economy Report 2019, and the World Economic Forum’s The Global Risk Report, quality and accessible education at all levels is the key factor to growing forward in twenty-first century economies. These reports call on governments to improve and safeguard education as a way to ensure local economic adaptability and agility in the face of increasingly fierce global competition and concentration of value in the hands of a few corporations worldwide.
The reports mentioned above reveal that Humanities programs are an essential part of this equation. The intimate tie between language, culture, and identity is especially pronounced in digital economies. Skills derived from training in Humanities disciplines are identified as the primary, target skills of these economies because of their social nature. The shift towards high-level cognition and dexterity in relation to sociobehavioural skills as employment desirables has already happened: all forms of work in the post-Web 2.0 world require these attributes. Whatever roles or jobs students take on, whether social worker, lawyer, accountant, dentist, nurse, business entrepreneur, architect, geographer, or environmental scientist, their main task will be to listen for the story and translate it into the right language for advocacy, healing, resolution, sustainability, sustenance, preservation, and growth.
Education does not just “happen.” It is not a faceless commodity subject to market trends, nor is it a neutral entity that can be downsized without serious social and economic impact. Canada and its provinces have an absolute responsibility to maintain a robust system of publicly-funded education that meets the needs of its citizens at every level of learning.