The value and nature of a university education is often subject to speculation and criticism. It has been scathed for failing to prepare students for the workforce. At the same time, it is also criticized for failing to provide a sufficiently stimulating learning environment that enlightens students and piques their intellectual curiosity.
The problem with all these critiques when it comes to their subsequent policy predictions is that they are not coming from the same place. In order to make sense of the quality of university, we need to understand what the purpose of the institution is.
Only then can we properly prescribe what to do about it. While university began as a means of higher learning, scholarship, and education for the elite, practical means have eroded the ivory tower. Professional schools that were once separate, such as engineering, commerce, medicine, and law, were added to the classical university.
Over time, a more demanding economy used this institution to hire trained workers. Learning for learning’s sake, the original aim of the university, and the challenge of giving it modern economic utility have not been reconciled. This results in students acquiring few relevant job skills, while simultaneously only partially feeding raw academic hunger.
If you are going to critique the university model and come up with reasons for why it should be fixed, you need to go back to first principles and decide why you think it exists in the first place. If it is solely for building up a résumé and relevant skills, then it should have more classes that teach those skills, and practitioners should teach more of those classes. Co-ops and work experience must then follow suit as part of the curriculum.
This is perhaps why we see the popular resurgence of college education. Students are realizing that relevant skills and education can be achieved more effectively and in less time with a college education. Furthermore, these schools and their marketing campaigns are positioned specifically to get students into jobs. These schools are looking to provide practical education, and as a result their goals are clear and their achievements are easy to track.
This does not mean that we can’t have both. Academic stimulation and job training are not entirely mutually exclusive. It does mean, however, that we need to accept and understand what we are striving for and the trade-offs that may have to be made.
An institution overly focused on academia may mean that students will have to find job skills outside the classroom, but they do not have to do so — schools can try especially hard to provide easy access to job skills seminars and career experience.
Alternatively, schools could have a mix of practically focused and academically intense classes, or have two intense years of academic study followed by two years of practical skills training.
These recommendations are vague, but they show that you need to first decide what university is meant to achieve before you attempt to change the model. University does not need grand new plans so much as it needs reflection.
Christian Medeiros is a third-year student at Trinity College specializing in international relations.