Thursday, March 07, 2013

What is the value of a university degree in an ever changing world?

In a comment on Credentialism and the real return on degrees, Noric Dilanchian wrote:

To put another layer into your interesting post and reader comments, it is my view that graduates need more than ever to be "re-credentialed" soon after they get their tertiary degrees.

Here I'm referring to situations or disciplines where the degree turns out to not be the entry ticket into good money, or as you note, even a job in the studied discipline. I'm seeing more and more evidence of a pattern in physiotherapy and certainly law that those who get into a job in their discipline find after some years that they really need new skills, new offerings, even a whole new framework for marketing their core offering. (The degree was not for them a buy once, use for a lifetime ticket.)

The evidence of the pattern arises for me in recent months as I've done a lot of advisory and innovative business modelling work involving re-credentialing in a health sector field where the tertiary qualification is not producing the results required. My client is in a position to re-credential along the lines I've described. This work took me back to remind a template you and I worked on more than a decade ago for a certain Catholic institution, you'll remember the one.

Extrapolating from the above I would say, as I've often done, that in a time of continuing rapid change in so many things, it should not surprise us that "sure thing" discipline degree are leading for some to underwhelming or deadend careers or at least futures that don't produce the financial returns that might once have been expected.

Now Noric's comment got me thinking. It is true, I think, that people are retraining or re-qualifying in a way that wasn't true in the past. Further, in many cases they are paying for it. But what are the implications of all this? Many is the short answer. Here I want to look at just two.

The first is that it demonstrates the difficulty of estimating a return on various forms of education. How do you disentangle all the influences?

The second. How do you justify increasing course lengths when your graduates increasingly require re-skilling now or in the future? This one gets into broader issues where my prejudices come into play. Still, is it time for us to shorten courses?  Do we need a four year university course for a para professional role, for example?


Evan said...

My guess is that if it was intensive and well done on-the-job training that just about any job can be learnt well enough to handle 80% of it in about 6 months.

Re-credentialling is quite different to re-training. I think these need to be distinguished.

Jim Belshaw said...

On your second point first, Evan, you are quite right. On your first point, I think that you are about right.

Any person going into a job has to start with certain knowledge and skills or they are pretty useless. If they don't, then you have to create that first. Then, once on the job, about 85% plus of learning comes from the on-the job experience. If you structure that carefully, and very few managers can, and then combine it with targeted training, you can bring a person up the learning curve quickly. I am not sure that you can get to 80% in six months. It depends upon the job and the person.

If you extend the length of university education or vocational training beyond the base amount required for entry, you enter a new world because you are non encroaching on the job environment. Does the person perform better because of your course as compared with the on-the job learning alternative?

At the moment, we have a real problem in the perception, I think accurate, that graduates are not getting to the base point. So they aren't even getting to the stage where the value of the extra time can be assessed against the on the job alternative.

The need to retrain in a general sense raises different issues.

Anonymous said...

Probably off topic but was just reading a Good Weekend profile of Sarah Hanson-Young which included something along the lines of "after graduating with a degree in social sciences she got a job as a bank teller".

I have no particular opinion of H-Y one way or the other, but it strikes me that her experience, multiplied thousands of times might be seen as a waste of finite university resources as regards at least the first part of her working life. And then there's the next bit - post-politics - and I'm wondering just what she might be fit for, without re-skilling?


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvd. Thank you for continuing the conversation, allowing me to further clarify my views.

I'm not sure in the case of H-Y. I have no problem with people doing a university degree as part of a general education; that's arguably a good thing, regardless of what they do later.

I think that's a little different from the creeping credentialism that effectively mandates a university degree for an increasing proportion of activities, along with the tendency towards increasing length of courses.

Apart from the measurement problems that I talked about, the real value of these changes is very much open to question. It also leads to increasing confusion over the purpose of different forms of education and training.

We can see this in the discussion over the drive to increase the proportion of university graduates in the population. This focuses on a notional vocational link, but is actually a credential approach.