When meeting someone new at UTM, three common questions are typically asked: “What’s your name? What year are you in? What are you studying?” If you’re pursuing a more career-oriented degree, like UTM’s commerce specialist or a health sciences major, then that’s usually as far as strangers will prod.
But if it’s a different degree—for example, if you proudly proclaim yourself to be a philosophy, history, or an English major—you’ll eventually receive this follow-up question: “So… What exactly do you want to be then?”
It’s a question that exposes the idea that a university degree is merely an admission ticket to the career of your choice, an idea that has become woven into the collective student psyche. Yes, we may be studying something that genuinely interests us, but to what end?
I asked Maria Guirguis, a first-year life sciences student, about her motivation behind coming to university.
“It was the expected thing to do,” she said. But she also added that she wanted both to study something she liked and something that would get her a job.
Cost and Debt
One of the reasons that a university degree is starting to look more like a stepping-stone to a career is simply the rising cost of tuition.
According to a 2015 graduating student survey by the Canadian University Consortium, students who borrow money to finance their degree graduate with on average $27,000 worth of debt.
With this much debt on their hands, it makes sense that students want to get a career out of their degree, if only to begin paying off their student loans. These days, at least in my opinion, a university degree is akin to an investment that you can capitalize on by achieving high marks and graduating with a high GPA.
Guirguis believes that “if university was less expensive, people would be more likely to pursue disciplines they actually wanted instead of just jobs”.
Robert Price, a sessional instructor at UTM who is also studying higher education as a doctoral student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, had additional thoughts on the matter.
“It’s definitely a fair question to ask: ‘Am I getting value for the money I’m putting in?’ ” he says. But he adds that “it’s a mistake to equate the value of an education with job readiness”.
Most people wouldn’t argue with the fact that a high GPA is a good thing. Maintaining a 4.0 GPA is the bragging right that many students strive for.
To get that perfect GPA, students tend to pursue “bird courses”—courses that are generally regarded as easy, with a low workload—that will boost their GPA. Such courses can easily be discovered through Facebook groups that are dedicated to this very topic. There is even an entire website that lists so called “bird courses” at UTM with rankings, such as the St. George’s Anti-Calendar. For something that’s been put together by students trying to avoid a lot of work, the site is ironically comprehensive.
Achieving a high GPA through supposed “bird courses” can also be a sign that you aren’t really being challenged. University should be a time to step outside of your comfort zone and try new things. A part of learning something completely new is making mistakes. To truly understand a concept involves trying and failing and trying again, but unfortunately there is no room for failure in university, where your GPA hangs over your head every day. This, in turn, ends up discouraging students from taking courses that they may be genuinely interested in, in favour of courses that they think they can do well in.
Guirguis admits that she took a women and gender studies course as a “bird course” but that it “definitely wasn’t one”. She added the common slogan that “bird courses don’t exist at UTM”.
Aside from achieving the perfect GPA, building a strong resume and gaining workplace skills are also high priorities for students.
During the clubs fair, when students are attempting to recruit new members to their organizations, it’s not uncommon to hear members add that a position in their ranks will look good on a resume. While it’s not wrong to want to gain skills that employers will be looking for, it’s beginning to seem as though everything students do in university must further our own future pursuits.
Of course this isn’t true for all clubs on campus. I genuinely think that aid-based clubs, like UTM’s World Wildlife Foundation, do care about making a difference and not just adding volunteerism to their resumes. There are certainly many social welfare clubs on campus that are trying to improve the wellbeing of others. And I doubt that those who join Quidditch do it to beef up their resume, unless the grad school they are trying to get into is Hogwarts.
“There are definitely clubs that aren’t geared in an academic way and those that haven’t been monetized or commercialized or turned into resume builders,” says Price.
Still, there is no denying the fact that for many students, holding executive positions in school organizations is an essential step to furthering their academic careers.
The idea that a career is the ultimate goal of university doesn’t seem to be contained within the walls of a classroom anymore. A driving need to succeed and advance towards material goals is working its way into several aspects of student life, and transforming the brave new relationship between students and higher education.
According to Price, universities should be a place where students “broaden [their] minds, challenge assumptions [they’ve] been carrying around, and learn to say no to [their] parents”.
Sounds like a good idea. Maybe after I get into med school.