Winders: Silly ‘value’ question continues to distract

There is no widget. That’s always been the problem for critics of universities.

Sure, we can point to research successes or industry partnerships as examples of our utility. But when you get to the core mission – linking the next generation of leaders and innovators to the knowledge of the past and preparing them to apply it to the future – it’s more difficult to quantify immediately. Combine that with the fact universities deal in big, complex budgets, and that puts quite a target on our backs.

In recent months, countless pages of newsprint and hours of television have been dedicated to questioning the ‘value’ of a university degree in our modern world. Take Rex Murphy’s Cross Country Checkup over the weekend.

Now, I enjoy Murphy, although he too often treads too closely to ‘curmudgeon’ status for my tastes. But I think he is a smart, sincere guy who just plays the populist card more than he should.

You are smarter than those callers, Rex. Act like it.

Hence my disappointment Sunday when Murphy became the latest media type to dedicate far too much time to the question: “Is the value of a university education being oversold?”

Seriously, are we still discussing this? Does not a millennia-long track record of success as a founding institution of civilization trump the short-lived panic of a tight job market?

Yes, every time the economy takes a dive, the Punditry Class starts to question the ‘value’ of a university education. They cry out for measurable, immediate results from our postsecondary institutions and, as a golden-child example, hold up the perceived safety of the community college degree.

“Forget tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and innovators; we need plumbers today.”

Truth is, society needs both.

You expect that kind of narrow vision from folks like the Tea Partiers, who project personal frustrations and failures on the latest bogeyman offered to them by a mass media short on context and in constant need of theatre. But now it seems to be infecting those who know better.

Murphy, rather, Memorial University graduate and University of Oxford Rhodes Scholar Rex Murphy understands the silliness of this debate better than anyone. But that didn’t stop him from wasting two hours on it.

That’s not to say universities should be free from questioning. In fact, we owe real answers to society on issues surrounding tuition costs, corporate influence and academic freedom. We also need to look beyond the raw numbers of butts in seats, and make sure they are the right butts in the right seats at the right time.

See, there is no shame in saying university isn’t for everyone.

I know that. I wasn’t ready for university when I was 18. It wasn’t until I was much older, much more confident in myself and mature in my attitude that I understood the power of a university education. That’s why I came back to finish my degree in my mid-20s. That’s why I returned for a master’s degree in my late-30s. And that’s why I plan to return in the future.

As I have said before, part of that is our own fault. We tend to laugh off these attitudes. We do not push back. We tap instead of punch. We pardon ourselves when we should interrupt.

International students are not flooding North American universities because they have four-plus years to kill. Global employers are not begging for university-educated math and science grads because they need the HR practice. Families are not sending their kids to university because they want to throw a few extra thousand dollars away.

Universities matter.

Yes, we should face extraordinarily tough questions to maintain our importance in society. Bring that on. But shouldn’t we be free from the silliness of questioning our very existence?

Sadly, the answer in today’s world is ‘no.’ So be prepared to fight back.