So, is a degree still worth the investment?

I’m afraid this is a bad story. I recently was chatting with a very pleasant lady while waiting for a plane, and when she found out what I did for a living she unburdened herself to me. Her husband, now in his mid-40s, had some six years previously decided that he wanted to improve his professional opportunities. He did not possess a university degree, but had shown lots of interest in science at school. Then as the Celtic Tiger was roaring and the Enterprise Strategy Group (remember that?) was telling everyone that they should move ‘one step up’ educationally, he decided he would go back to college. He studied biology, and then, with a very good degree, he went looking for high value employment in the smart economy. Yes, I’m afraid you guessed correctly, he didn’t find anything in which he could engage his new expertise. So he went back to what he had done before, considering the previous three or four years to have been wasted.

In fact, I have a hunch that we may be coming to the end of an era in which a university or college degree was considered to be indisputably desirable and a good return on personal or public investment. As we move towards a degree as the expected qualification for the entire population, having it is no longer so exceptional, and ironically, not having it not such a downer. If we think of a university degree as something that opens doors to special careers and high returns, it is obvious that this cannot hold if everyone has one.

But then again, a degree should not really just be seen as a key to the executive suite, but rather as an educational investment that will provide a more skilled and enlightened population. It is about providing the country with the capacity to solve problems, handle complex technologies, understand cultures, and so forth.

But right now we have a very opaque sense of what it is all for, which also explains why we are so bad at strategising it and funding it. We don’t know what higher education is for any more. And because we don’t know that, we don’t know how to plan for its future, and we start making a bigger and bigger mess of how we run it. Right now the national formula is to scale down the investment, increase the numbers, and control the operation tightly from some central national point. What will that bring us?

It is time for something better. It is time to understand what part of higher education is vocational, and what part is educational in a broader sense. It is time to have a plan about how graduates will develop their careers on leaving education. It is time to state more clearly what we see as the benefits of higher degrees, particularly doctorates. And it is time to engage and motivate those working in higher education so that they can apply energy and skill to their tasks and so that they can lose the instinct to feel nostalgic about whatever went before. It is time, frankly, to stop messing around.

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13 Comments on “So, is a degree still worth the investment?”

  1. iainmacl Says:

    I thought part of the argument for fees was that the degree was in significant part a private good and brought additional wealth to graduates. In this bloke’s case would he have qualified for a refund then?

  2. Mark Dennehy Says:

    That’s a rather broken idea.

    Firstly, there are whole industries, like the IT industry on which we’re supposedly rebuilding the entire economy, where a college degree is an entry requirement unless you’ve been active in it for years already. So there’s no real choice for those seeking jobs in those industries but to enter college.

    Secondly, it’s widely believed that graduates emerging into industry today are of a lower standard than ten to fifteen years ago; and ten to fifteen years ago those of us who were students at the time were – even with our temporally limited viewpoint – noticing a marked change in the character of graduates. Fewer and fewer were doing side projects or chasing after things they found interesting. In the TCD CS department, an entire research group run by undergraduates (the SCRG) was allowed to die off from lack of interest. Students were moving away from extra-curricular activities and focusing solely on the core aspects of the courses and the final degree awarded. Employers rewarded higher degree scores; so students focussed on them. If an activity carried no reward in terms of course marks, no time was wasted on it. They were being serious, not messing around.

    Ten to fifteen years later, the same industry that encouraged that is now crying out that those students are the worst they’ve ever had to deal with. The lack of historical perspective is baffling. It was the employers themselves who set the goalposts – the students merely aimed for them. To turn around now and say that it is the student’s fault that they didn’t focus on a broad range of skills and investing their time in extracurricular activities as we did is arrogant and hypocritical for an industry. It’s worse than that for an educator, because it was the educational institutions’ role to ensure those students received the best education possible. Instead, we allowed IT courses to pander to the whims of industry, shifting language choices and curriculum structures to follow industry fashion rather than educational needs. We failed to push students to expand the breadth of their training, and utterly failed to prepare them for the industry they were entering. A new graduate today has never been exposed formally to standard industry techniques as basic as proper teamwork, proper documentation, proper testing.

    It might be time to stop messing around; but if so, that admonition should be squarely directed at the colleges rather than the students.

    • To be the devils advocate. Could it be that the quality of graduates is dropping because the quality of freshers is dropping? When Universities are selective and filter for the most best recruits, shock, horror, they get better graduates. When anybody can go, the graduates are worse.
      For this to be true, of course, Universities would have to little effect except to filter for people already primed for success by good homes, primary education, parents and so on.
      The source data (quality down, access up) would also have to be correct.

      • Mark Dennehy Says:

        Certainly with the IT industry, relevant degrees all had requirements on course-specific scores (certain grades required in honours mathematics usually). That does isolate the courses to a degree from any grade inflation.

        Frankly though, in fifteen years of continuous contact with undergraduate students, I’ve not noticed a drop in basic intelligence in the technical courses. It’s how that intelligence is directed that has changed; and that intelligence itself is why that change in direction is not the fault of the students. If the goalposts shift, it’s folly to blame the players for aiming at a different place.

  3. Perry Share Says:

    Unfortunately getting the degree is only (less than) half the story. What is just as important is the development of the necessary cultural and social capital (networks, tacit knowledge; professional identity) – something that maybe our third level colleges do not sufficiently educate their students in. And of course, these days, you have to be extra-mobile too. This is probably a major challenge for mature age/returner students.

    • Mark Dennehy Says:

      This is probably a major challenge for mature age/returner students.

      Most of the successful companies in IT and in more socially enlightened countries are learning that the challenge is actually as much for the companies as for the workforce. Countries like Sweden, with legally mandatory paternal leave being taken by 80% or more of the population, for example, are learning that they have to restructure how they approach work.

      Maybe it’s not too utopian to think that one day in the future, the workforce won’t be treated like disposable cogs, and that practices we see today in Ireland, like hiring young new graduates, burning them out over the course of a year or two while treating them appallingly and not paying them much above the bare minimum possible, and then discarding them for a fresh crop; will be finally abandoned.

      It does, after all, seem rather unfair to take a highly skilled workforce and then tell them that they can’t have a family life, or any semblence of work/life balance, regardless of their skill level or how much money they earn for the company.

      • Perry Share Says:

        It would be nice to see that happen. Unfortunately employment relations seem to be going in the other direction – for example with short-term contracts being brought in for disposable staff in the education sector. It is the firms and organisations that will suffer in the long-term. I suspect that the ‘messing around’ that FvP fears is only starting.

  4. wendymr Says:

    I see this all the time in my job – and (quite a change from someone who used to extol the benefits of higher education) I now caution people considering going back to university or college to do labour market research first and think very carefully about whether it’s the right decision. I have clients with masters degrees who end up working in factories or buying variety stores (similar to 7-Eleven).

    We don’t know what higher education is for any more.

    Yep – and, as I said a few weeks ago, without that clear understanding of what it is for all of the continued banging of the drum of ‘widening participation’ is a waste of everyone’s time and money, and especially that of the student.

  5. You should have upsold him to one of your excellent MSc programmes. No one takes you seriously with a Masters these days.
    And that is the crux of the matter. What you have going on for the last 150 years ago is an educational arms race, The Peacocks Tail, the Red Queen, analogy to your preference.
    Once upon a time, only the elite could access degrees. If you could get one, you became, by default, elite. Now everyone has one, it doesn’t count for as much, unless you don’t have one. An acquaintance of mine, graduating in pre Tiger years, was given a job on supermarket tills (instead of stacking shelves) because he had a Law degree. Degrees are not keys to the executive suite – they are now required to get into the lobby.
    So long as this continues, Mommies and Daddies will insist on broad participation in open education for their little Johnnys and Marys.
    Only when something else catches their imagination as the keys to the executive suite (like the MBA craze) will that change. Things will really get interesting when instead of thinking:
    “No Degree – slush pile”
    Employers think;
    “No Degree. What instead? Interesting…”

  6. Aidan Says:

    I’d even go one step furthur when assessing about how really beneficial to your career any degree is without a very clear path of professional progression.

    My better half currently sits unemployed whilst holding a MA ,MSc and PHD as well as numerous other professional qualifications. She had a very clear plan of a life in academia from the start, yet now with funding cuts finds herself in limbo, with her array of qualifcations seen as a barrier to entry in the private sector with the term “overqualified” used alot.

    “Smart Economy” still remains nothing more than a buzzword, whilst the very people who could potentially drive this economy are forced abroad.

    • Perry Share Says:

      now the question is, given that I have a BA, an MA and PhD, and no job on the horizon, are there other ways that I can make use of those skills in order to gain a livelihood? If the education system has not provided any of the relevant transferable skills over the years in question, you’d have to ask how appropriate it is to the contemporary situation we are in. This is not to argue for a completely mercantilist approach to education, but to suggest that (as this posting was originally challenging us to do) we need to start to rethink the purpose(s) of education in general and HE in particular.

  7. Al Says:

    It has been in my mind for a while now, that one of the icebergs in Irish education is to do with how we measure the quality of it.

    The effort devoted to determining the outcomes, can and maybe will at some point, obscure or take away from the actual education that is going on.
    Choosing the metrics of sucess make the chosen ones explicit and then the other potential ones implicit, with the eventual complaint that the implicit ones arent been focused on.

    How much does the Leaving cert cost per student? Can that cost be devoted elsewhere to better effect? The same goes for Third level?

    It is, or course, important that students be tested, and sucessfully guided to meet such challenges, but at there has to be a point at where the effort gone into testing is effort taken away from other potential efforts within education.

    Final results give a black and white result of the educational outcome, but it is the grey stuff we need to pay more attention to.

  8. […] While some universities are bound to jump at the chance of a two-year degree structure, others will be vehemently against it.  The difference of opinions will be down to this: “We don’t know what higher education is for any more.” […]

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