Degrees of deception

Franklin Johnston

Friday, August 31, 2012    

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THE recent offer of a doctoral degree which came to my inbox was attractive. I did not have to go to a campus and could have a framed certificate for my office - tempting! Woe is me! Years in the British, Rhodes, Bodleian archives, in the Caribbean, at the feet of polymaths Isaiah Berlin, Fieldhouse; Dons of Exeter, Nuffield; why didn't they offer me this doctorate before?

A degree seems a necessity, but all degree institutions are not equal; nor are all degrees equal. If you have a degree from the UWI you are on the leader-board, if one from UTech in technology, equal; NCU has a niche crafted over a century as for a campus time is the master. By degrees the new middle class distance themselves from the rest.

As more get degrees the need for differentiation is acute, so you need two degrees. Soon you will need three and degree devaluation deepens. Employers respond by demanding a degree for low-level work, and the slide goes on. A secretary with a Master's? That's not the job she wants, but the one she can get; others don't know that, so all secretaries benchmark themselves by her. Soon all secretaries have Master's - devalued degrees. In the long term, good degrees drive out bad; in the interim chaos reigns. Exams are not democratic. So on the excellence curve most fail. The police may soon require a degree as you can now get one by e-mail. "Bwoy, a weh yuh ah do pon de corna?" a policeman asks. "Jus a tek de breeze, Dr Corpie, PhD," says the young man. The UK is raising entry standards; not here. Soon a degree pre-1985 may be vintage and those after - mere plonk. We squeeze and give poor people rotten degrees, but not the competencies they need.

Labour demand is crucial to degree value, but what do the PIOJ, SLB, the Labour Ministry tell us? Nada! We need annual Labour Market Demand (LMD) forecasts for degrees so students can choose wisely. As of 2012 the UK will publish data to help students make choices. This includes facts on entry pay by degree, lifetime earnings, which job pays how much. The consumer guide Which is to publish annual rating of degrees and rate universities on content, teaching quality, contact hours, exams and facilities - labs, ICT, etc. Who protects our students from reading useless degrees at poor-quality institutions? Our academic fabric is so thin we have circuit lecturers - yes! One man with his aged notes is teaching the same course on several campuses. Does he research? Does he write for journals? Too many degree factories chasing too few intellectuals.

The Americans are ahead in consumer advice for students. Their student debt is $1 trillion-plus, and exceeds credit card debt as students know value costs money. The Georgetown studies show a petroleum engineer starts at US$90k and a social worker at US$35k - easy degree low pay. Student debt creates a lot of angst here. Son, if the degree is not worth the debt, don't do it! US data says for a $200k student loan, a nurse's career earnings is $3m; a doctor's $6m, accountant's $3.7m. US students have trend data to guide them; why not ours? I note some 40 per cent of their maths majors are women, but they don't go into finance. They teach. So don't blame women for the meltdown. Also, a professional may have many careers, viz in his field, then manager, then consultant and talk-show host. Choose your degree wisely and win.

There are other means to advancement than a degree. Many students disrespect skills, but a student who embraces technical/vocational is way ahead as we need can-do people. A pupillage in a law firm means you are earning and learning. UK research shows those who go from school to work earn £15,000 more than those who do a degree first. A degree and a proficiency certificate are not the same. A degreed person may say he can do "anything". The latter can tell you exactly what he does. In times past, UWI graduates were seen as too academic and UTech graduates fitted right in with industry. Boy, times have really changed!

Education prepares people for life and distinguishes the best from the rest. A university is a place of inquiry and innovation. Today "Eureka" moments are replaced by degree frenzy. A degree is the new marker of class and most need only the letters after their names. Some 20 institutions offer degrees and another 10 are trying to get in. Yet we do not have the intellectual manpower to support more than seven. Degrees have replaced scholarship. The intellectual gene pool is inbred; lecturers have not worked in another intellectual culture - I went to NCU, I teach at NCU - that's incest. They all think the same, and the student and society are cheated of scholarly divergence.

We also have mission drift among state-funded campuses. UTech branded for science, seems pastiche - a pale version of UWI, not a technology giant. UWI's leftist aura is a veneer and self-interest, not the disadvantaged, is dominant. NCU has a good values package and unless make-a-money is a philosophy, most others suck! Many do no research, invention or innovation. Is a university just a school or talk shop? To teach? Do you see IP and patents? No. But they gobble up public real estate to plump their balance sheets at taxpayers' expense - lottery scam is not the only scam! Rein it in or disaster looms!

Here is a paradox. Degree-granting institutions are growing in enrolment while examination results for schools are getting worse. How come they get more students each year? What's the trick? If a campus juggles entry and gives weak students catch-up to get the fees, is their degree the same as your son's who got eight "A" subjects and got a place on merit? The state is irresponsible as they provide no LMD forecasts to guide parents and students. Some universities are irresponsible as their growth is based on what students will pay for, or what staff can teach. Many students are irresponsible to read degrees they like, or easy subjects, but they scream at the state when they can't get a job. They will not take responsibility.

A degree is a fashion accessory. The factories supply, but by 2020, over-extension and cash asphixiation will result in mergers or failures. It takes cash and business skill to run a successful university. UWI was once a college of London University and so, given the shallow intellectual pool, one clear solution is for teachers' colleges and others which wish to offer degrees to become colleges of UWI, NCU or UTech. These are the brands of choice. A meltdown of campuses is looming, so move quickly! Stay conscious, my friend!

Dr Franklin Johnston is a strategist, project manager and advises the minister of education.





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