Opinion

Students' Dreams Must Now Be 'Data-driven'

That's premier's message as BC higher ed becomes a wholly owned subsidiary of big business.

By Crawford Kilian 30 Apr 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

I spent over 40 happy years in B.C.'s post-secondary system, teaching students to become qualified for jobs. They were in career programs, not university transfer: Business Management, Tourism, Retail Fashion, Legal Assistant, Applied Information Technology. As a Communications teacher, I was interested in practical results: landing a job interview and then a job.

Every program had an advisory committee made up of people in the field, and we instructors listened carefully to what they said our students needed. (Sometimes our own grads, now successful in business, were on the committees.) We tailored our courses year by year to meet employers' needs.

My colleagues and I were pretty good at meeting those needs, and our students generally did get jobs (though not always in the fields they had trained for). Both we and our students were aware of the accelerating pace of change in the workplace, and we changed too: I went from typing my own dittographed handouts in the 1960s to creating blogs for each of my classes in the 2000s.

During those years I was also talking shop with educators all over the province, and a recurring theme was our failure to sustain trades training. Even as post-secondary enrollments grew in the 1980s and '90s, B.C. demographics foretold a serious skills gap: the plumbers and electricians were aging and retiring, and weren't being replaced. Apprenticeship programs were always an afterthought.

But students preferred going into the professions and arts. The market demand was for "trades training" in the law, medicine, arts, and education itself. B.C. post-secondary bowed to that demand, and so did the politicians -- who themselves were generally graduates in just those fields.

Seen in this perspective, the provincial government's new report on The Industry Training Authority and Trades Training in BC looks like an overdue recognition of reality: it's all very well to pass laws and cure patients, but someone's got to wire the MLAs' offices and build the doctors' hospitals.

A gift that keeps on giving

This, however, is not the way to do it. This amounts to a gift to big business of B.C. post-secondary education, which currently costs taxpayers just under $2 billion yearly in operating expenses alone.

Never mind the 57-page ITA report itself, which has some sensible points. It's the way Christy Clark's government is selling the report that should set off alarm bells. The April 29 news release that announced the report is itself 17 pages long, many of them filled with well-scripted cheers from government ministers and executives like Philip Hochstein of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of B.C.

The release tells us the government will now "re-engineer B.C.'s education and apprenticeship systems." B.C. does not spend money on education and training; it "invests more than $7.5 billion." Re-engineering means "targeting more of these resources to meet labour market priorities."

So we are now engaged in "a major shift to a data-driven system where training dollars and programs are targeted to jobs in demand. This system will also be outcome focused. Success will be measured and funding and programs adjusted as the economy evolves."

Corporate Newspeak

I can well imagine the giddy laughter over late-night beer and pizza as the government's flacks cooked up these phrases. Victoria is now speaking corporate Newspeak like a native. Christy Clark's corporate masters must feel like Professor Higgins, getting Cockney Eliza Doolittle to speak English like a lady.

We're not talking about schools and universities any more; we're talking about abstractions. It's beyond me why a "data-driven system" should be a "major shift" from any school that keeps records. And schools have always been "outcome focused" -- the whole point is to see the kids come out of school smarter and better informed than when they came in.

We're not talking about changing; we're re-engineering. And now we are spending taxpayers' dollars not to meet taxpayers' priorities, but those of the labour market. And that means jobs in demand; when demand slacks off, tough luck for anyone caught training in the wrong program.

North American education has struggled for years under an industrial metaphor: six-year-olds supposedly enter the assembly line as raw material and come out as usable young adults. But we are not cranking out Model Ts or toasters, and God help us if we turn our kids into such commodities.

However tempting it may be to worship the captains of industry, and to obey their every whim, we should remember that they live in the same moment we do, and they have no better idea than we do about what we should prepare for.

These are the same people who urged us to train more keypunch operators back in the 1980s. These are the guys like the Xerox executives who funded Xerox PARC's invention of the modern computer, complete with mouse and graphic user interface. They were clueless about what they had, and sold it to an acid-dropping college dropout named Steve Jobs -- who had really liked an artsy-fartsy course in calligraphy that helped the Mac conquer the world.

Where's the business plan?

In other words, Christy Clark's corporate mentors are OK at making a buck right now (with huge government subsidies), but their business plans for the future boil down to "Let's put on a show in my father's barn!"

I can recall when my college launched an aquaculture program to train people for the hot new industry of fish farming. The farms are still there, but they didn't work out quite as well as hoped, and the program vanished long ago.

I can also recall Brian Peckford's pickle palace, when Newfoundland was going to get rich growing cukes under glass.

And I recall the Bricklin, which was going to put New Brunswick on the automotive map.

Much of the new training program will support Christy Clark's liquid natural gas project, which shows every sign of becoming a punch line like the Bricklin. After years of cheerleading and arm-waving, B.C. taxpayers will end up paying for an orgiastic future that never quite arrives. Only gas-fuelled global warming will arrive, ahead of schedule.

Never mind Clark's "million job openings" (including under six per cent if them in LNG "at peak construction") and the program's contribution of "up to a trillion dollars to the province's GDP." (What the minimum contribution might be is unsaid.) What we really have here is a giveaway of B.C.'s post-secondary system as a subsidy to private enterprise.

Education trains workers as a side effect of training citizens, free men and women who are the real owners and managers of their society. They set the rules of that society, not their public servants or the CEOs looking for a cheap proletariat.

Educated citizens, moreover, should be quick learners, able to pick up all kinds of skills on the job. The British taught their kids Latin and Greek, and then sent them out to rule the empire.

And whatever happened to on-the-job training, paid for by the employer? When did employers decide they deserved an endless handout from the taxpayers in the form of pre-trained proles, who would cost them little more than a yearly donation or two to the BC Liberal Party?

With Clark promising to divert 25 per cent of post-secondary spending into trades training, she gives us fair warning that the money will come out of existing programs, especially the arts and sciences. Colleges and universities will be unable to meet student demand for such programs because the money for them will be used for training welders.

Then such demand will become a literally academic question as arts and science programs are simply chopped away, as Capilano University has already done.

We won't have colleges or universities any more. But we'll sure have a wonderfully re-engineered system.  [Tyee]

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