What do you want from your university? Skills, knowledge? Or just a degree?

There is no shortage of studies suggesting that university graduates benefit significantly from their qualification as they progress through their careers. In 2015 it was suggested that the value of a university degree could be as much as £500,000 over a lifetime. If this is true, it is still not really clear what exactly confers this additional cash benefit: the knowledge acquired during studies? The skills, vocation-specific or transferable? Or is it maybe just the actual degree certificate, as an entry qualification into higher-paying jobs?

As long as we are committed to the degree as the currency of higher education qualification we run the risk of maintaining a club, even if the membership of that club has been growing. The degree certificate is the membership card. We can argue all we like about what universities should be doing pedagogically if all the student, or for that matter the employer, cares about is the piece of paper.

University degree programmes have a fairly high level of structured uniformity. They require student participation over a fixed period (though the visible extent of that participation on a day-to-day basis may vary greatly), with a small number of fixed entry and exit points. There is some flexibility for those using non-traditional versions of the product, such as distance or online learning, but the model is still recognisably the same. This may be appropriate (and continue to be so) for school leavers, but is this uniformity necessary for a mature learner population or others using higher education in a non-traditional way?

The time may have come to re-consider the importance of degrees as the sole quality mark of higher education, because doing so may allow us to focus much more on the content and purpose of what we teach rather than the formal framework in which learning takes place.  Such a review may be even more appropriate in the light of recent doubts as to whether university degrees really do still confer the financial rewards once considered certain. It may be that in 2018 university degrees do not need to be the sole, or even main, offering in our institutions. It is at least worth a discussion.

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4 Comments on “What do you want from your university? Skills, knowledge? Or just a degree?”

  1. Vince Says:

    OK, I can have some valid put in this one.
    Due to a pretty hellish childhood one way or another I don’t have a Leaving Cert so I’m pretty thankful to UCG that was, NUI, Galway , and the then dean of Arts, Nollaig Mac Congáil for taking a chance on me.
    How does it matter having the parchment in Latin with Pat Fothrill name and the seal of the University, or even does it matter. Well I’d say yes. With me it’s confidence. When people give you the look of something they carried in on their shoes changing what can be a passive couldn’t care less into something far more active you can face it down. When people like civil servants make assertions you can listen, analyse, and accept or dismiss certain you are using tools validly tested. You don’t accept the first no from anyone.
    I designed and made a business card and departed from Irish convention by putting BA(Jt Hons) NUI after my name and I append that to every communication. Why, because I darn well earned the right to do so.
    Am I the ideal employee, probably not. But if you wanted someone with problem solving ability you’d not go far wrong. If you wanted a compliant slave you’d best look elsewhere.

    Your blog, FvP, is asking this question one way or another for as long as I’ve been reading it. Whence and whither the sector. Philosophically, what is it, what is its essence. And how it fits with contradictory goals set naturally within and the demands from without.

    But for me the degree has given me confidence and with it choice.

    • Vince Says:

      Pat Fottrell


    • Thank you for an interesting account, Vince. I do know that degrees matter, and I’m certain they will remain part of the portfolio – but maybe not for everyone in every setting. I’m glad UCG gave you this major opportunity.

      • Vince Says:

        What I’m trying to say, badly, is that the degree is very important for the person. But the exclusionary social system that formed around the university in the past simply evolves. In Ireland it becomes the requirement for a masters and unpaid internships and endless fees to professional bodies. In effect the ceilings of the past that access was supposed to smash were raised. In a way this was why I was so hopeful about the on-line education. Where if not all dealt with at home at least the majority of study could. Or my notion of the usefulness of MOOCs, that they could provide foundation for post grad top ups halving the time within the walls, or even more. And thereby the costs.


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