Posted tagged ‘university degrees’

The skills debate – an intervention from South-East Asia

June 26, 2018

In a recent post on this blog I looked at the developing discussion around skills, and how universities should respond. In the meantime, Singapore’s Education Minister, Ong Ye Kung, has suggested that the city state should have a multi-pathway model of post-secondary education and training. Part of this will be run through a new state agency called SkillsFuture, which is offering high-potential qualifications not involving a university degree.

There is an additional point to be observed in Singapore’s approach. The Minister wants schools to stream pupils ‘according to their inclinations’ regarding science, creative arts or IT. The idea behind the Minister’s approach is to stabilise careers. The general assumption is most developed countries is that those entering the labour force in future will not remain with one employer but will have a ‘portfolio’ of careers. The Minister does not want this for Singapore’s workforce.

All of this indicates again that the debate about skills, education and training has really only just begun, and governments, their agencies and educational institutions may not all be making the same assumptions and pursuing the same pedagogical goals. Indeed whether this matters is not yet clear either.


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

May 14, 2018

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.

Over-qualified graduates?

February 16, 2012

The European Union publishes an annual report entitled Key Data on Education in Europe. In the 2012 issue there is some interesting statistical analysis of the structure and nature of Europe’s education systems. For me, one finding suggested in the report rather stands out:

‘… A growing number of young people appear to be overqualified for the type of employment they find. This suggests the need for more efficient forecasting of the short- and long-term needs of the labour market with a view to providing reliable educational and careers guidance to students so that improvements can be made in matching young people’s educational qualifications with actual employment opportunities.’

At first sight it is not easy to see the basis for this conclusion in the data recorded, but it appears to rest on the finding that, across Europe, up to 40 per cent or so of graduates find work as technicians, clerks, craft workers or machine operators – the assumption being that none of these jobs require higher education degrees. In other words, it is assumed that the graduates working in them do so because they could not find employment more suitable to their qualifications.

Of course in a recession graduates, like others, will find it more difficult to secure employment, and some will opt for non-ideal jobs that will at least give them an income. But the same report also finds that graduates find work ‘two times faster’ than non-graduates.

In many countries it has been public policy for a while to increase participation in higher education, and to upgrade educational qualifications across the population. It would be highly reckless to suggest now that this has been a mistake. In fact, much more analysis would have to be done before anyone could conclude that people are leaving higher education with qualifications beyond their needs. The European report suggests that maybe students are choosing the wrong subjects, and there is some evidence to support that contention: we know for example that there are significant vacancies in the information  technology sector that, even now, cannot be filled with appropriately qualified graduates. On the other hand the evidence still is that all graduates are more likely to find a job quickly.

Careers guidance and the careful selection of programmes of study is always desirable, but in the end there is still little evidence that a university education, of whatever kind, does anything other than support labour market success. Public policy should continue to recognise this.

So, is a degree still worth the investment?

June 30, 2010

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.