Qualifying higher education

No educator likes this kind of talk, but if we were to accept for a moment and for the sake of argument that universities are selling something, what is it? Although it is very hard to identify the real nature of the transaction or exchange, we do know that we get money (whether in sufficient quantity or otherwise), and we know that we undertake an activity connected with that payment. But if someone is buying something, who is that someone and what are they buying?

There are several possible answers to this question, but let us now assume that the purchaser is the student (which is increasingly true in a number of countries). Would the student believe that his or her tuition fee is paying for an education, or would they maybe say it is for a qualification? In  other words, if the university invited students to take a programme of study but declined to offer any formal qualification at the end, would the students still come? Or at least, would so many of them?

In some ways the educational bureaucracy has long made the assumption that the qualification is what the bargain is all about, ever since the quality assurance movement got under way. That movement assumes that the ‘quality question’ of higher education is whether the educational process, leading to a degree or diploma, was correctly administered and is consistent across the higher education sector. But that is not a question about pedagogy (or arguably even about educational standards): it is a question about the consistency, transparency and efficiency of outputs.

I am not suggesting that quality assurance mechanisms are bad (though when badly administered, they are). Rather, I am reminding myself (and others if they are interested) that we have become rightly concerned to monitor how educational institutions fulfil their mission, but that we ask surprisingly few questions about the real nature of learning and what it entails. We are sucked into process, but not into experience. As a result the gold standard of higher education is the exit qualification, and graduates can take that to their new employers and often need not worry whether they will be able to explain anything they have learned.

It is time to look again at education in a context other than its formal elements of delivery and assessment. It is time for us to be clearer about what we want education to do. And I really would prefer not to be told that it’s just there for its own sake.

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12 Comments on “Qualifying higher education”

  1. Steve Button Says:

    Having worked in the Oil Industry for 24 years and Academia for only 4 it is and always has been clear to me that the purpose of going to University or College is to get a better job and therefore more highly paid.
    All this airy fairy rubbish about education for educations sake or to maintain an outdated elitist system basically for the benefit of the Universities themselves really has to be left behind in the 19th century where it belongs.

    It’s the University sector which has become almost wholly commercial entities and so they will be measured by what they are trying to sell. If some institution is going to charge me £9000 per year then by God they better sell me a super duper product and if they are basically a crap institution then they deserve to fall by the wayside.

    I have three children either in University or will be by September. I want them to gain a qualification which is on par with what others are trying to sell. I want them to both study hard and enjoy themselves within a stimulating educational and social environment.

    Far too many of those at the top within academia are a product of the system and have little or no experience of the world out there. School-University-Academia. For Gods sake introduce some fresh thinkers into the discussion process.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    For me this post subtly connects with yesterday’s one as far as the issue of (instant)gratification is concerned, a gratification that is increasingly and exclusively placed on the exit qualification. As you put it, we are ‘sucked into process’, oblivious to issues of pedagogy and to the ‘real nature of learning’…when it comes to education and its related policies the main emphasis is on league tables, rankings, quality assurance mechanisms scores and the various types of monetary and prestige gratifications that all the ‘stakeholders’ involved (parents, students, institutions) derive from them. to my mind the issue is not so much to dismiss such aspects as insignificant – as they are not – rather to re-focus the ‘balance of power’ so to say amongst them all…needless to say this is a rather difficult endeveavour, to think about the ‘real nature of learning’ sounds too airy, too impractical, too much work for too little reward, (recognize the echoes of the ‘education for its own sake argument’ you rebut?) this is the kind of idea that can’t instantly be monetized, it has little intrinsic value, and yet it has the most valuable outcomes of all, it is at the core of the’ same idea of university’ and what it *should* be for, i.e. enhancing intellectual development and civic awareness…

  3. Mary Says:

    No educator likes this kind of talk, but if we were to accept for a moment and for the sake of argument that universities are selling something, what is it?

    Access to peer groups and networks. It’s the great unspoken of the whole university fees debate, because it’s unquantifiable. Go to Oxford or Cambridge, and, as with the American Ivy Leagues, you will be mixing with the next generation of world leaders. You will be surrounded by people who believe themselves eligible and entitled to lead whatever field they happen to enter, and because they believe it in sufficient quantities and have the connections to make it happen, they do. Similarly, if you go to a Russell Group or a 1994 university, you’ll meet the rock solid, taking-themselves-for-granted upper middle class – the next generation of ambitious professionals and senior public and private sector managers. If you’re from that kind of background, you’ll pass some of that confidence on to people from different backgrounds, and if you’re not, you’ll probably pick it up. And you’ll all go out into the world measuring yourselves against each other and also networking and helping each other advance.

    I think the whole debate about how the “quality” of education is skewed: what’s far more important to graduate outcomes is the “quality” (for which read the social capital) of the people you meet a particular university and the networks you form. Teachers can teach brilliantly at every institution, but it’s not the quality of the teaching that fills the Cabinet with Oxbridge graduates and the professions with Russell Group alumni.


  4. “It is time for us to be clearer about what we want education to do. ”
    Perhaps I am missing something because this seems such an easy question to me?

    We want it to make us happier, either by:
    (i) providing us with skills that make us and society more prosperous in order to have a better quality of life (eg better health care, social services)
    (ii) to give us a better understanding of ourselves and our environment so that we can make better personal decisions and have better influence on the public decision making process, in order to improve our quality of life.
    (iii) for the fun of it

    This may seem simplistic, but we have to get agreement on basic objectives along these lines before we can start saying how an education system should operate.

  5. Jeff W Says:

    I appreciate that discussing education in terms of a transaction might be uncomfortable to some. But I think this is an important conversation worth having. As we see a progression to the “cohort-of-one” we should not be surprised by just-in-time education demands that have more to do with obtaining a certain, practical skill set rather than say a traditional liberal arts diploma.

  6. Al Says:

    Important post!
    The tendency to avoid the difficult to measure data creates a poor learning environment.
    Perhaps Uni’s could fill in the gap with a method or mission statement on what they seek to foster?
    This debate goes back to Socrates and the Sophists though……


  7. People will come even if no diploma is on offer. The popularity of open course ware and the Khan academy testify to this.
    When I buy a degree, however, I am probably searching to buy a career entry permit, not necessarily into a career in the subject I studied.
    When an employer stipulates that a degree is required for a position, they may be looking for subject specific knowledge, or they may be looking for more general evidence that a person can stay on task for a period measured in years, not days.

  8. Gordon Hall Says:

    The University is surely at the pinacle of our education system. So what is the purpose of our education system? It is surely to create and informed, critical and continually learning society. Is it not our belief that an educated society has a better chance in ensuring our wellbeing and progress? If you are hesitant in accepting this belief might I suggest that you read Arthur Herman’s book “The Scottish Enlightenment” or research the education acheivements of our prison polulation.
    So if our education system is geared to the well-being of our society, what is the University’s role? The thought that it is only there to provide qualifications (a piece of paper) and connections to like minded people is surely a terrible waste of the extensive resources poured into our University system.

    As Mr Prondznski states “It is time for us to be clearer about what we want education to do”

    The Universities could make a massive contribution to our society if it used its massive intellect to address this complex, holistic and long term question as to its purpose relative to the whole of society. However The Universities, at this point in time, are constrained from doing this because they are managed by an out of date and limiting “Command and Control” culture. It is managed and accessed by what can be measured such as qualifications and research papers published. To move forward The Universities first need rebel about how they are managed and controlled. They have to demand to be different and innovative in addressing their purpose


  9. I have been thinking a lot recently about this very topic, just what is the universities role? And the conversation often comes back to the debate around education or training? My undergrad studies have let me get a taste of how both art schools and business schools interact with student, the art schools in particular seem to favour education, seeing the student experience as a time to learn and develop without many of the constraints of the “real world.” The business schools help students understand the workings of their chosen field and go some way to help them practically understand in the form of placements. So, back to the education or training debate, both approaches seem incomplete, education doesn’t necessarily provide the skills to put all that knowledge into practice and training seems to prepare an individual for one role without the holistic understanding of an industry. Personally I have always sought out a kind of applied education, it’s always been about gaining knowledge and knowing what to do with it for you own and others benefit. I still feel i would need the qualification as a formality should a ever choose a job in teaching etc, but a useful skill set coupled with the a good understanding of your discipline is key.


  10. An architect (non practicing) recently told me that the value of their university education was that it taught them how to persist with projects on a long (multi year )time scale.


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