It is a question which is of concern to all high school students and to all parents of teenage children. What will I do after school? For some the choice will be obvious; they will have a desire to follow a certain career path, or to enter a specific field of study. However, the majority of students have no idea what they want to do in the future. The choices can seem bewildering; whether to go into trades or go to university; whether to obtain a general education or to opt for a more focused vocational program. Underlying these decisions are also concerns about how much it costs to obtain an education in different fields, and how quickly a student can hope to recoup those costs in their future working life.
Today’s students typically see university as a ticket to a future job, rather than viewing education as an end in and of itself. This is compounded by government funding policies in many countries, which seek to use universities as a means to address perceived skill shortages in different sectors of the economy. Thus we are seeing a redefining of the traditional role of universities. Today many undergraduate university programs have in effect become assembly lines, designed to churn out a supply of compliant recruits for industries deemed to be strategically important by the government of the day. Things are not much better at the postgraduate level. Available funding is increasingly being channeled away from pure research, and towards industrial partnerships, often aimed at meeting commercial objectives.
The Canadian experience is illustrative, and although by no means unique it represents one of the more blatant attempts by government to redefine the role of universities. In Canada, government funding for research is channeled through a number of major research councils. The National Science Research Council of Canada or NSERC has traditionally provided funding to professors and researchers across a wide variety of disciplines, and this funding has helped to create a vibrant and dynamic research environment for Canadian scientists. However over the last few years changes to programs have resulted in a considerable reduction in the funding provided for pure research. New programs emphasize industry partnerships, with intellectual property rights usually residing with the industry partner. NSERC funding for postdoctoral researchers has also dropped, with some of the slack being taken up by so-called industrial postdocs, where research is jointly carried out with industrial partners, with all benefits once again accruing to industry.
The current Canadian government is heavily committed to the development of the oil and gas sector. In fact a cynical observer might suggest that many of the recent reforms to research funding programs are at least partially designed to silence legitimate scientific questioning of the policies and practices of these industries. From this perspective, pure research can be seen as a waste of money, since the primary function of universities is to provide a source of trained labour for resource extraction industries. Research which questions the environmental impact of such industries is doubly unwelcome, since it also calls into question the underlying basis of government policy.
However the current emphasis on meeting the needs of industry ignores one crucial point, which is that no one knows what the industries of tomorrow will be; in large part because most of them do not yet exist. The idea that fossil fuels are the way of the future is questionable, and there have been numerous recent articles published which predict trouble ahead for the oil and gas sector. Add to that recent statements by the IPCC that most known fossil fuel reserves will have to remain undeveloped if we are to stand a chance of keeping additional warming under 2° C, and the fossil fuel industry begins to look like a pretty poor career choice. And yet that is the focus of many of today’s university programs, which seek to address the skills shortage of tomorrow from a blinkered current-day perspective.
What will happen when all those students currently pursuing assembly line degrees graduate and find there is no high-paying oil industry job at the end of the rainbow? This is a dilemma which many students will face over the coming years, and it is not confined to the oil and gas sector. How can we know which industries are going to succeed in the coming years, and which are going to go the way of steam engine builders and buggy whip manufacturers? We are heading into a time of uncertainty, when the world around us is going to change rapidly. What seem like solid industries, with good employment prospects may in fact turn out to be anything but, as new competing technologies emerge unseen from a totally unexpected direction.
To prepare ourselves for such an uncertain future we need to reappraise the role of universities in our society. Traditionally what was studied at university was less important than what was learned. The primary purpose of a university education was to teach students to think, to ask questions, and to equip them with the necessary skills to make good decisions. However current undergraduate programs at many universities are focused on moving ever-increasing numbers of students through the system; sending them out into the world without ever having learned to think for themselves. This is not the fault of the students; the problem lies with the attitude that views universities as student mills, who’s primary function is to produce skilled labour for industry.
In the world of tomorrow, no one can tell who will be the winners and losers. It is likely that many of the traditional industries which dominate our lives today will see their roles diminished, as smaller, more nimble competitors emerge to challenge their traditional market dominance. This is particularly likely to happen in the energy sector, as renewable energy increasingly comes to the fore. However, similar transitions will probably occur across all sectors of society. Eventually I believe we will enter a new stable period, as we move to a new societal paradigm. However until we get there we will be in for a rough ride. The only way to educate people for this transition is to teach them to think on their feet and to be adaptable. That is why universities must revert to their traditional role of teaching students how to solve problems independently, without being spoon fed the answers. After all it is not just their future which is at stake. The future of our very civilization will depend on the ability of people across the world to make wise and informed decisions in the coming time of transition.