It would be nice to think that students entering a university – and their parents, teachers and counsellors – followed this route in order to broaden their minds, acquire knowledge and skills, and equip themselves to succeed in life. In reality many, perhaps most, go in order to acquire a ‘degree’, the currency of education that can be exchanged in return for employment or a career, and maybe other benefits. The degree certificate is the university’s statement of support for the student, and promises that the owner has met strict criteria of capability and performance.
Anyway, that is the theory. The question is whether the university’s certification matches the expectations that those relying on it may have. There is, I would at least argue, little doubt that higher education graduates continue on the whole to impress those who employ them or work with them. But there are also growing concerns that the currency has flaws. Talk about higher education grade inflation has created questions over whether the degree is a robust statement of achievement and ability. The exponential growth of higher education options, with a bewildering array of courses from a fast growing number of institutions, has made it more difficult for those relying on a person’s degree performance to know what exactly that means in comparative terms. Some employers are now suggesting that, whatever about the specific skills a degree course is intended to confer on a student, people seem often to graduate without really basic abilities in things like literacy and numeracy. New courses, including MOOCs, are offering learning without certification. Does all this raise reasonable doubts about the reliability of the university degree? And if it does, what’s the answer?
The response by some to these points is to conclude that the university ‘degree’ has had its day. The well known American political scientist Charles Murray has suggested the following in his 2009 book Real Education:
‘The solution is not better degrees, but no degrees. Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications they can carry into job interviews. That measure should express what they know and are able to do, not where they learned it or how long it took them to learn it.’
Of course the degree programme does more than provide end-of-course certification: it also establishes a programme structure, under which the student progresses through a syllabus and a timeline. Some current experiments are, at least partly, doing away with all that, prompted also by the different expectations and aspirations of some of today’s learners, many of whom are not school-leavers with three or four years to spare for full-time education. So what is emerging is sometimes called ‘competency-based learning’. This has been defined by the US Department of Education as follows:
‘Transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. Competency-based strategies provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned or awarded, and provide students with personalized learning opportunities. These strategies include online and blended learning, dual enrollment and early college high schools, project-based and community-based learning, and credit recovery, among others. This type of learning leads to better student engagement because the content is relevant to each student and tailored to their unique needs. It also leads to better student outcomes because the pace of learning is customized to each student.’
What this looks like, at one level, is a return to education as a process that is measured in terms of learning that has been mastered rather than formal certification that has been awarded. At another level however this could be learning reduced to training only, with no easy place for general, theoretical, inquiry-led scholarship, particularly in higher education. But the time has come to ask far more searching questions about what we want our courses to achieve, and how the goals can best be delivered. We need to have a conversation in the academy about how we can secure genuine scholarly integrity while also giving both students and their present or future employers what they want (which will include significant elements of vocational formation). We cannot just assume that what was good in 1950 is still good today.