The education journalist Peter Wilby had a comment piece in the Guardian last week, in which he raised some interesting questions about the value of educational qualifications. The article resonated with me because it touched on an issue that I have become more and more aware of since assuming the role of Director of Undergraduate Studies: the meaning of a university degree.
Wilby starts from what is probably a widely accepted position:
“Education is regarded as an unmitigated good, of benefit to society, the economy and the individual. More means better, we think. In many respects, that is true: if we are a more tolerant, more inclusive society than we were 50 years ago, that is largely because most of us are better educated.”
But despite improvements in education he notes that many professions have been affected by a sort of qualification inflation, by which the minimum entry requirements have risen inexorably and, in some cases, without proper justification. He argues that this creates problems for employers and students:
“Take, first the demand for higher general qualifications: the batch of GCSEs and A-levels or a degree without which most employers won’t look at a job application. These credentials carry little or no information about knowledge and skills that may be of relevance to a particular career. They are sifting devices, allowing employers to exclude those they perceive as unintelligent or lazy. They create, in students, an instrumental attitude to education. Subjects are studied and examinations taken, not because of enthusiasm for history, chemistry or German literature, but because they are required if the student is to progress.”
I wonder what you — our students — feel about this? There is on occasion a perception among staff that some students are only prepared to engage with their courses if the activity contributes to the degree. Hence the oft-heard refrain, “Do we need to know this for the exam?” or the sometimes patchy attendance at lectures or tutorials that are not perceived as necessary.
To some extent, I think we should be relaxed about this. It is part and parcel of treating students as responsible adults — free make their own decisions and take the consequences. Given recent increases in fees, it is understandable that students should be more concerned about the grade on their degree certificate, since that may well impact their future income.
But I would not like to go too far down this road. Being at university is about so much more than the acquisition of a qualification. It should be a time of excitement and personal growth, in all sorts of areas, not just academic. A university should be an environment where curiosity is encouraged to thrive and where all participants, staff and students, can enjoy an intellectual challenge together. It may be hard to realise, given the day-to-day pressures on everyone’s time, but I think it is a goal worth aiming for.
In part this has motivated us to introduce more research-based material into the revised Biochemistry second year and this sort of thinking is behind the development of the College’s new Horizons program (introduced this year for 1st year students). This will be an ongoing project as we seek to refine the experiences on offer to our students. You can help with this by talking to us about how we might — within reason please! — provide opportunities to complement and enrich your educational experience, to make it less passive.
The preoccupation with qualifications can sometimes make university seem like an end in itself. But, as Wilby argues, it would be more valuable to see education as a life-long process. Your time at university is just the beginning.