Media portrayals of today's university students fail to show that many hold down jobs and internships and have much to offer employers, says Zane Schwartz (photo by Jon Horvatin, University of Toronto)

Media, students and higher education

Worldviews 2013

Zane Schwartz is a student at the University of Toronto, news editor of The Varsity and one of Canada’s Top 20 Under 20.

Along with Maclean’s editor Josh Dehaas, U of T student Sarah Rankin, and student activist Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, Schwartz was a panelist at the Worldviews 2013 conference: Global Trends in Media and Higher Education, hosted by U of T June 19 - 21. (Read more about the conference.)

U of T News asked Schwartz for his thoughts on the conference.

Why did you agree to take part in this conference?

The main topic of our panel was how students are represented in the media. This is something that I’m very interested in.

Students don’t make the news as individuals, only as numbers. Average student debt, rising tuition costs, faculty to student ratio etc. get covered. Statistics don’t lend themselves to accurate representations of today’s university life though, and the coverage gives rise to some persistent themes.

One persistent theme is that students today are entitled, despite record numbers of young people working as unpaid interns to try to get a foothold in the area that they are passionate about. Many take paying jobs on the side to subsidize this desire to learn more about their passion. All of these unpaid interns are working diligently to survive in a job market with youth unemployment double the national average.

Another omnipresent theme is that students are lazy, despite many working part time to pay for school, and accepting jobs for which they are overqualified once they graduate to pay off student debt.

Amidst all the white noise of students as numbers something important is lost: the fact that universities aren’t factories. In many ways, it’s the things that you can’t quantify about a university and its students, that are most valuable.

Is the very notion of a university degree being called into question?

I’d say yes, absolutely. Commentators in the media counsel young people to pursue marketable degrees at colleges where education is specifically tailored to lead to employment.

When employers are surveyed though, they say that they value creative thinkers, problem solvers, those who can adapt to a changing job market. This is exactly what university prepares students for. When actually asked to hire young people with those skills though, no one seems to want to.

Many jobs that were once entry-level now ask for multiple years of experience. They have been replaced with temporary work, without benefits, without job security. Anyone who says young people are entitled only needs to look at the day-to-day uncertainty with which we live to realize how absurd that claim is.

What did your fellow panelists have to say about these issues?

Gabriel Nadeau Dubois made some really interesting points about how Quebec’s culture and attitudes around education are significantly different from the rest of the country. In particular, he suggested that students outside of Quebec didn't protest because high tuition leads to high levels of debt, leaving students without time to protest. That’s obviously only one factor, but Gabriel knows that, and it was really great to hear from someone who played such a large role in the Maple Spring.

Josh Dehaas made some great points about the realities of the changing media landscape, with constant updating being expected, and declining budgets being the new norm. I think he’s right that part of the reason why coverage tends to be somewhat superficial and transitory is that there is less money, and fewer editors, and fewer reporters. I’m pretty sure the Globe is the only paper that still has a full time postsecondary education reporter in Canada. 

Did you get a chance to sit in on any of the other sessions? Which were the most thought-provoking?

There were so many interesting sessions; it’s hard to pinpoint one or two. There was a discussion about the trend of university professors who are less vocal in the media than they once were, because fewer and fewer are protected by tenure. One of the points that kept coming up is that the number of adjunct professors seems to be rising in response to budget constraints without any conversation about how that effects teaching quality, or any reliable data on how many there are.

There was a really good panel about the value of journalism school. I agreed with Adrian Monck, who is charge of communications at the World Economic Forum who said journalism schools need to stop accepting so many students because everyone knows there just aren’t nearly enough jobs for the number of graduates.

Can you share the most useful insights or analysis you encountered?

The great thing about this conference was that I learned so much throughout. Some highlights: Anne Sado, the president of George Brown, made a really interesting point about how College faculty members are less likely to be vocal in the media because they don’t have the same kind of enshrined protections that a tenured professor has.

There were two themes throughout the conference that I was aware of before but I think are really important. There was a fair amount of consensus on the fact that it’s unfortunate that the debate around higher education is focused on who is producing employed people.

The other, less talked-about theme, is that employers are playing an increasingly smaller role in training people for jobs, and increasingly asking universities and colleges to do the training for them. No one in the media talks about that, and we really should.

(Read more about Worldviews 2013.)


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