Education principals

The Journal sits down with Principal Woolf to discuss the value of a university education and how to keep our graduates relevant

Woolf says he believes in education over job training at university.
Woolf says he believes in education over job training at university.
Credit: 
Journal File Photo
Many university graduates are entering the job market “overqualified” with degrees.
Many university graduates are entering the job market “overqualified” with degrees.
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Just like coffee and textbooks, uncertainty isn’t hard to find on Canadian university campuses.

The National Post recently ran an article naming Canada as the number one country for university and college enrolment, but we’re also the top country for university graduates who live in poverty.

It reported that the advantage higher educated people hold over high school graduates is narrowing in a crowded and overeducated job market. And it’s no news to university students that finding a job is difficult right now.

The value of a university degree has inevitably shifted with higher enrolment. An undergraduate degree was once noteworthy, and now everyone has one.

But getting your Master’s degree, according to the Post, might not help either. Furthermore, some feel that the trades — where there are more jobs — face a social stigma: many students and parents turn their noses up to the thought of a college degree or apprenticeship.

In the midst of these issues, it’s hard to know where our education stands.

The Journal sat down with Principal Daniel Woolf to get his take on the purpose of a university education and what Queen’s is doing to stand out.

Q: These days, what do you think the value of a university education is?

A: I think a university education can offer several things. There is obviously the sheer educative value in the sense of creating people who are culturally literate, have good critical thinking skills, can write and communicate well — all of which are indispensable tools in any workplace.

I think also that there is a maturation process that goes on in a university education process that has always been part of its goal certainly going back to the period of history I’m interested in, [which is] the 16th and 17th centuries. [This is] when people started sending young men (it wasn’t women for quite some time) to university to become educated to assume a role in society, and that’s a little different from how it was in the Middle Ages when it was very specific training for a career. So, we’re building on about 200 years of tradition of universities educating the young for future roles in society but also advancing scholarship in their own right, and that’s a model that was put down in early 19th century Germany.

Q: What is the difference between a university education and a college education?

A: There is a difference and I don’t think it’s better or worse. I think they’re complementary. They also overlap. I think gone is the day when they were two solitudes and it’s no accident that we are actually doing more in concert with colleges. Queen’s, for example, has an MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] with St. Lawrence College and, in fact, we just approved a joint program in music between the two institutions.

That being said, they do have different foci. Colleges are indeed very specific skill training centers; you can go and do woodworking and culinary arts and plumbing … just as you can also do through the apprenticeship system. We don’t do that at university, it’s more an all-around education. Some of our faculties are a little more focused in particular areas such as engineering, medicine [and] business, but even there it’s not necessarily the case that people are going into particular jobs.

A whole bunch of our engineering grads don’t actually do engineering — they go into areas like the financial sector, because that degree gives you an all-around good set of quantitative process thinking skills. Similarly, an arts or science degree gives you lots of transferable skills.

Q: Do you think university is about education or job training?

A: I think that’s a slightly unfair dichotomy. And it’s a little bit almost anachronistic. Clearly we want our students to have jobs and we would be acting irresponsibly if we did not do everything possible to facilitate their meaningful careers and lives. Certainly it is about education primarily and job training, in the sense of a specific job, only secondarily.

That being said, it is a very competitive economy out there. Students and parents are paying tuition. We do get some support for the programs from government so it behooves us to pay some attention to the needs of students out in the workforce. That being said, we still have to defend the traditional education because what it does for students.

I’d also say this hasn’t changed over the last 30 to 40 years. There’s more students but it was no truer in 1980, when I graduated, than now that you could get into a job related to your discipline right out of university. I had no more chance of doing history with a history BA than I do now. I had to go to graduate school ... I think it’s entirely false to look at graduate outcomes based on “well I’m not using what I learned in my sociology course or what I learned in my English course”. The fact of the matter is that you probably are using [what you learned]. You might not be using the very specific knowledge but you certainly are using the research sills, the thinking skills and the communication ability.

Q: Given the current issue with university graduates facing poverty, how are we helping out students?

A: We are doing stuff ... our strategic framework and our academic plan both call for a significantly increased pursuit of what I would call experiential education. That means programs like the Queen’s Innovation Connector, external programs like the Next 36, it means internships and job placements where it makes sense and where we can do them.

I don’t think we’ll ever go in a sort of Waterloo-style co-op way. I think the nature of the Queen’s experience is such that you would lose a certain amount of the cohort cohesiveness which is part of the special sauce that keep this place together ... That being said, we do have some very successful internships and placements so ... we’d like to increase those sorts of activities, and I know student governments including the AMS [are] very keen on this.

Q: How do we get our students to appeal more to the workforce?

A: Well, certainly students are helped by the fact that they have a Queen’s degree. It does open doors partly because of the high quality of students we let in in the first place and the fact that so many of our students finish on time. We have by far the highest graduate and retention rate of any university in the country.

[But] one can’t rest on one’s laurels and the more we can do to prepare students to enter the workplace, the better. I think the chief challenge for your generation, that my generation didn’t have to face, is, first of all, there’s a huge amount of economic and technological change so there are entire jobs that didn’t exist before.

Secondly, there are far more of you than there were in my day and that is a bit of an issue in terms of competing for a narrower field of jobs. One of the things we are recognizing is that many students will indeed need a second credential moving on, as we’re seeing a lot of students going onto college after university. So, apart from the experiential education, we’re also going to be investing more in our own second credential delivery whether it’s Masters degrees, or certificates or diplomas that one can get on top of one’s BA or BSc.

Q: How do you think increased enrolment will affect the quality of education?

A: It presents its challenges. There’s no question about it. Queen’s is twice the size it was when I was a student here. Classes are larger, seminars have evolved into lecture discussions and so forth.

That being said, I’m actually teaching a course this term — the same course I taught when I was a postdoc — and I’d say the quality of the students is absolutely as good as it was 28 years ago, and my class is about the same size as it was.

First and second year classes certainly have swelled and it’s partly because of two things: one is that there is just a lot more students in the system, [but] Queen’s is actually taking [a] fewer … proportion than it used to. We used to have about seven per cent of the Ontario system and now we’re down to five per cent, so we’ve grown but we haven’t grown nearly as much as our peer institutions.

The other reason, of course, is that the research expectations for a university of our size and prestige are considerably higher than they were a generation ago, so workload has been redistributed a little bit so professors are teaching fewer courses or course sections than they taught a few years ago.

Q: Why do you think students choose to attend Queen’s and what do you think we have that other universities don’t?

A: We’re one of the three or four schools across the country with a very national and longstanding reputation. I think most of all, the strength of our faculty, the rigor of admission and graduation, the fact that it is tough to get into, but … once you’re in, we really try to take care of you. And the fact that we just have so much [of] a community residential feel and that ineffable thing that we call spirit that is really hard to analyze. But, we know when we have [spirit] and we know when we don’t — and we’ve got it.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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