University as Preparation for the Real World

I recently read an interesting report from Maclean’s magazine, regarding a survey of Canadian university students. The survey was asking about which schools and programs had best prepared these students for the workplace. More than 17,000 students, spanning almost every Canadian university were surveyed. The results were fairly eye-opening. Here is a sampling of some of the responses:

  • 53% of students at St. Francis Xavier strongly agreed that they have the skills and knowledge required for employment
  • 71% of St. FX nursing students felt they had been well-prepared for the workplace
  • Students were also asked whether their schools had helped them with their writing abilities; St. Thomas University came out on top here.

The survey was anonymous and self-reported, so we have to assume that students responded honestly. Still, I think this report raises some interesting points to consider.

  1. Is university necessarily the best or most effective post-secondary option in preparing students for the workplace?
  2. Are students’ perceptions about the workplace and all that it entails even accurate? If not, how can they be sure they’re actually prepared for it once they finish school?

For this post, I will only share my thoughts on the first point. In short, my answer is “no.” There are many reasons why university is not the be-all, end-all solution to getting a job and being successful at that job. First of all, and perhaps most importantly, not all students who decide to go to university actually belong there. Too many students go to university simply because all of their friends are going, or because they have been sold the idea that university is the only pathway to success. Neither of these is sufficient reason to embark on such a challenging, and expensive journey as a university degree.

If a teenager is not self-directed or independently motivated enough to study and complete assignments, then university is likely not the right destination for them. Unlike in high school, professors at university do not check after students to ensure that work is being completed; instead, once an assignment has been given, students are unlikely to hear about it again until it is due. This requires students to be on top of their own work, and some simply are not able to take this kind of responsibility. Also, the workload is often so heavy in university that some students don’t know how to manage it and thus become overwhelmed, ultimately leading to falling impossibly behind.

However, it’s not just the fact that some students are unsuited to university that poses a problem; there is also the fact that university programs tend to be very theory-oriented, as opposed to focusing on practical skills. Because of this, most students graduate with excellent critical thinking skills, an ability to discuss theories and ideas, and useful skills in research and synthesis of ideas. It is difficult to judge how directly applicable such skills are to many workplaces. It is interesting to note though, that in terms of the article I mentioned at the start of this post, a high percentage of nursing students felt they had been well-prepared for the workplace. This might be because a nursing program involves a practical component, with students actually working in a health-care setting, and thus having the opportunity to apply what they are learning to a real-life situation. An English or Philosophy major for example, would likely not have the same kind of opportunity.

Now, a caveat; none of what I’ve said is meant to knock university. Plenty of people attend university and do find good jobs and success in life. I am merely trying to point out that university is not necessarily the best option for all students, and may not in all cases adequately prepare students for the world of work. In order to ensure that university is a good option for a particular student, it is important to first, understand the capabilities of that student, and second, to understand what a particular university program will actually entail and how that might apply to the workplace. If these questions are addressed beforehand, university can be an excellent option indeed.

*Survey report can be found at


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