Since the 1960s, the participation rate at university has increased significantly. Today, we’re approaching university and college enrollment of 70%. Post-secondary education has become a massive operation, which has an impact on student learning. In the 50s and 60s, it was more a small college environment, with more opportunities for students to interact with faculty. Now, class sizes are larger. This means that students are challenged to be more independent in how they learn.

At the same time, a knowledge explosion has taken place. The Internet has made it possible for students to access a constantly expanding university of information with the click of a mouse and this is changing what we do in our classrooms. In previous decades, professors and textbooks were the primary source of knowledge. Now students can find knowledge and information from many different sources. What professors do today beyond lecturing in classrooms is to also help students analyze and interpret information they may find online. The learning environment has changed and will continue to change.

Don’t just listen to your high school counselor. You need a diversity of perspectives.

If you graduated in the 50s or 60s, the percentage of people with university degrees was lower than today and the number of opportunities was greater. You were also more likely to remain in the same profession for the rest of your life. Today, we’re producing a significantly larger number of graduates and the jobs are not as many, so competition is greater. The other differences are that students are now more aware of their career options and they are far more likely to change jobs and even professions as they progress through their careers. That has been a significant shift in the mindset of the students, driven by the realities of the job market.

There are many jobs in high demand today that didn’t exist 10 years ago and it’s difficult to predict what the high-demand jobs will be 10 or 20 years from now. Though certain things will remain the same, how one applies knowledge will certainly change.

Each post-secondary institution is responding to the new reality of the job market differently. Some institutions strive to provide their students with market-ready skills. Typically this kind of training is reserved for college, but universities also have programs for this—professional programs, like medicine, nursing, education, law, or engineering.

Leaving these professional schools aside, however, there is a debate in this country as to what should be done to help our students who are not enrolled in professional programs. There is no consensus. Some say it’s important for universities to ensure their students have market-ready skillsets. Others suggest that the primary goal should be ensuring that we have well-educated, well-rounded graduates who have some other essential qualities and transferable skills that will help them to develop. Despite the more formal aspects of post-secondary learning, there are also parts that take place outside of the classroom. There’s community-based learning, there are placements where students work with community or business organizations. And some take advantage of the opportunity to seek international placement.

We need our students to be thinking globally. Some of our graduates may find it difficult to find a job locally or even nationally. What do they do? They look abroad. And they do this without the university’s support. But what if we had a program where students could pursue an internship opportunity overseas? All of a sudden, the student has an additional experience that will make them very valuable. The manufacturing sector is a case in point. It’s an industry that is currently suffering here, but companies like Magna and Linamar continue to thrive because they have expanded their operations internationally. If you want to join one of these firms, you’ll need to have that international dimension.

My advice to high school students is simple: Don’t just listen to your high school counselor. You need a diversity of perspectives. High school is too early to stream people into this or that. A mentor of mine once told me: “A mind is like a parachute. It works better when it’s open.” Don’t narrow down your options too early.

About the author

Dr. Amit Chakma

Dr. Amit Chakma is the President and Vice-Chancellor of Western University, located in London, Ontario, Canada. Prior to his current role, he was Vice President, Academic and Provost at the University of Waterloo. He also serves as the Chair of the World University Service of Canada and as a member of the Science, Technology & Innovation Council of Canada.