What Use is An Education?


For me, the year has always began in September. Though it’s been years since I was a student, every fall recalls the energy and optimism of the university campus at the launch of a new semester. These days however there is a note of pessimism arriving with the frosh, in newspaper articles which take as their point of departure a CIBC World Markets’ study entitled “Degrees of Success: The Payoff to Higher Education in Canada.” Rob Carrick reviews this study in the Globe and Mail (“Why some university students are doomed to below-average earnings”) as does Gary Marr of the Financial Post. At the CBC is an article and video titled “Many students asking if higher education is worth the debt,” and Robin Levinson asks at the Toronto Star “Is there any point to an arts degree?” All of these articles have drawn numerous comments, some of them thoughtful and some less so. A large, important and complex subject, “higher education” appears to be in a state of transition if not in crisis.

I won’t go into detail concerning the substance of the CIBC study, which is only five pages long and readily available. The authors, Benjamin Tal and Emanuella Enenajor, review Statistics Canada data and conclude that for many university degrees the return on investment (ROI) is poor and getting poorer. Nor are students drifting as a result into the more lucrative fields — medicine, law and engineering. The news coverage of this study is uniformly along the theme that many students are making poor financial decisions in their choice of degree, amassing debt in pursuit of useless arts degrees which lead inexorably to jobs at Starbucks.

There is a defence to be made of a liberal arts education, and perhaps in another instalment I’ll attempt it. In any case it’s a cause even the universities themselves have long ago abandoned, in an effort to refashion themselves along business lines. Education has given way to training, and it’s the business case that you’ll get from most defenders of the humanities and social sciences, who hold forth the usefulness of critical thinking in today’s shifting competitive and global economy.

Here are two interesting and revealing passages from the study that seem to have been ignored entirely:

Another important driver of the relatively low return on education is field of study. For students shelling out thousands in higher-learning costs, a university degree can be viewed as an investment with upfront expenses, and a stream of future benefits. We examine Statistics Canada and other calculations that have attempted to compute such an annualized average “return on investment” (ROI). The results show stark divergences depending on field of study. The ROI is typically higher for females than males, not due to higher future earnings, but reflecting the lower foregone income of female students.


Part of the problem isn’t a “Canadian degree” per se. The poor and worsening labour market outcomes of immigrant post-secondary graduates are part of the story. More than 20% of Canadians with either a college diploma or a Bachelor’s degree are immigrants, and that share rises with the level of education. Half of all PhD holders in Canada are foreign-born. Yet the unemployment rate among immigrants with post-secondary education is notably higher than Canadian-born individuals with similar degrees of education. The same goes for earnings. No less than 50% of degree holders that obtained their education outside of Canada earn less than median income. That is notably more than the 30% observed among Canadian-born graduates. A Bachelor’s degree in commerce earned abroad yields 40% less than the same degree earned in Canada. While in health and social sciences, the gap is only 10%, it balloons to 70% amongst engineering graduates.

In other words, amongst all the structural upheavals of the modern economy is the unchanging fact that women and foreigners (the latter of course referring  not to the British or Australians or Americans but to brown people) are undervalued. The study notes “the low return on immigrants’ foreign work experience, difficulties with foreign credential recognition, concerns about the quality of skills earned abroad, and low proficiency in English or French,” all of which have contributed to the phenomenon of (for example) the African surgeon employed as an Ottawa janitor.

The most discouraging thought of all is that some years into one of the worst of the recessions, the politicans and columnists and economists know no way out. The good news is that corporate profits — expecially in banking and finance — are very healthy, and that as a result those who were rich in 2007 are even more so in 2013. Then there are the rest of us, who must rely on this increasingly elusive thing called a job to make a living.

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