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University of British Columbia lowers the academic bar

By Heather Mallick

The University of British Columbia has just lowered the bar for student admissions to the point of embarrassment. I mean, I’m embarrassed for them. They on the other hand may be pursuing a realistic postmodern strategy coated in soothing management-speak. One can’t tell.

At the moment, Vancouver campus applicants need marks in the “low to mid-80s.” The Okanagan campus will accept arts applicants with marks in the “mid to high-70s.” This is bad enough.

But their new “broad-based admissions” process will no longer look solely at marks. It’s so odd how hard parents and students have struggled across the generations to get those numbers higher and now it’s as pointless as . . . correct spelling. UBC’s online application process warns students, “You may want to copy your answers into a document on your computer, just to be on the safe side. There are two benefits: You’ll have your answers saved somewhere. And you can run a spell checker over your work before submitting your answers.”

Seriously. A university hopeful has to be warned that spelling still counts, that computers can check, and that if spelling is beyond him, he is advised to conceal that fact on his application.

And then he has to write about his personal qualities, as evinced by: family responsibilities, success in contests, sports teams, work, performing arts experience, work, volunteer service, hobbies, etc. He should discuss his “personal goals,” UBC President Stephen Toope explains in a folksy introduction titled “More than a grade” that reads more like your mom’s application letter for a chronic care home. Is she continent? A cranky Sue? Will she fit in with the other ladies?

“Going beyond the grades means students can step forth as a whole person, and once they’re admitted, they’re more likely to thrive and succeed. And that’s something a parent can celebrate,” he writes. “Good luck!”

Trinity College is one of the U of T colleges that also require a student profile but it has very high academic standards. UBC, which says it’s the largest Canadian university to demand a personal profile, is aiming for something else. Are they trying to weed out nerds, social isolates and kids who hate gym? Why? Those are the kids who tend to flower at university, being finally valued for smarts alone.

The journalist David Sirota has suggested an answer, writing a painful essay in Salon.com after recent revelations about the Foxconn factories in China where hundreds of thousands of workers work on assembly lines to produce iPhones, iPads and other toys that North Americans are allegedly too stupid to manufacture here.

Sirota casts doubt on what is called the “education crisis,” the notion that in the West workers aren’t sufficiently trained in the mid-level, highly mobile skills demanded of Chinese workers. He asks, crucially, if “education” has become a synonym for “acquiescence.” We’re told that the spoiled West doesn’t produce enough science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) experts. But does a graduate truly need great STEM expertise to work in a factory, high-tech or otherwise, at mid-level?

Foxconn’s workers are peasants from the countryside, desperate for any work at all. Our university graduates don’t have their willingness to do repetitive work for low wages without benefits and attractive career goals.

So UBC may be bravely facing an ugly truth, that they don’t want intelligent students who take four years to build their minds, they want low-hanging fruit, the comfortably numb adequates headed for low-paid jobs in which obedience, emotional bendability and the ability to work in a team are crucial.

Meanwhile, a smart kid will head off to vocational or technical school and get a job that can’t be outsourced. Be an electrician, a cop or a nurse. You’ll do well.

UBC appears to be looking for students who’d be better off without a B.A. It doesn’t want geniuses, loners and creative types, it wants team players and worker ants. I don’t object to UBC saying this. But it should have the courage to say it plainly and out loud.

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