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A Better University

I previously wrote about the financial value of a university degree [1], my general conclusion is that the value is decreasing for most fields of employment that don’t have a legal requirement for a degree. In the past I wrote about some ideas for a home university [2], basically extending the home-schooling concept to a university level.

I recently read John Scalzi’s post about being poor [3], many of the comments address the difficulty of getting to college and how it impacts career possibilities. From reading that it seems that my ideas about a “home university” are mostly based around what middle-class people can afford. Also getting a job afterwards will probably be a lot easier for someone who was born into the middle classes.

It seems to me that a large part of the problem with the university system is the expectation that they will both provide for academic research and train people for jobs. Dr. David Helfand has some great ideas for running a university to give the higher education that a university is supposed to provide rather than the work training that most universities actually provide [4]. His ideas aren’t theoretical, they have been implemented and proven to work. Note that Dr Helfand’s talk starts slowly, the second half is the best (for those of you with short attention spans). The fact that most people think of a university degree in terms of getting a job seems to be a failure of the university system to fulfill it’s original aim.

If Dr Helfand’s ideas take off then it would really address the problem of universities not educating people. But that still leaves the issue of job training.

Is a Degree Mandatory?

I think that to some degree people expect that a university degree is necessary job training even when it isn’t. I wonder what would happen if it was generally agreed that the right thing to do was to search for a job between the end of high school and the start of university, then anyone who got a suitable offer could defer their university course and see what career success they could achieve without it. When I was at school the general idea was that after completing year 12 everyone just had a holiday until the start of university as the entire point of school was to get into university. While hiring managers prefer candidates who have degrees they also prefer to hire people who will accept a lower salary, so hiring an 18yo with no degree may give better value than a 21yo who has a degree.

I believe that making university degrees more accessible has reduced inequality which is a good thing. But making degrees mandatory (which is widely believed by high school students and thus is the situation that they have to deal with) contributes to greater inequality. While university doesn’t cost much by middle-class standards it is still expensive for poor people.

If a university degree wasn’t considered to be mandatory then the number of people employed to teach at a university level would be smaller. This would hopefully mean that the average skill of university lecturers would increase (I hope that the least skillful lecturers would be the ones to find work elsewhere).

4 comments to A Better University

  • I… Although I have long agreed with this viewpoint, I’m not so sure anymore.

    Some people, like me (and I guess, like you) are passionate about their chosen study/work field, and will learn by themselves. But I started as an university teacher this last year — And while I have had many bright students, I can assure you most of them do depend on information to be presented to them. I hope that, as part of their university’s schoolwork, I have helped them understand the value of research and self-teaching… Because that’s fundamental for their professional life!

  • In Denmark, university attendance is free and you get a small allowance to get by on.

    I too believe it reduces inequality. I saw a chart in a TED talk that pointed out the best country to live out the American dream of rising from poverty is Denmark. More tax = more freedom it seems.

  • etbe

    Gunnar: Are the students who depend on such presentation of information really well suited to a university degree? Might a job-training course be better for them?

    Ole: In Australia there are various forms of social security available for university students. But they also have a HECS debt at the end. Australia is better than many countries in this regard in that the HECS debt has a low interest rate and only needs to be paid if the student earns a good income.

    Yes, America isn’t a good country for persuing the “American Dream”, this is noted in the above Wikipedia page.

  • etbe:

    I… Am not sure. I know that, for some of them at least, university is not a necessity — A friend of mine studied at a well known private university, and he claims to have a good background despite of his university. I have worked with people from different universities, careers and backgrounds, and what you get taught *does* shine through — I remember looking with awe at the code produced by a fellow mathematician. The code had some flaws here and there, but it was just *beautiful*, he used some abstractions I would have never thought about.

    But anyway, back to your question: Many jobs insist on hiring only graduated people. Those jobs are usually best suited for people going to job-training courses (i.e. certifiations)… I have worked basically all of my life in a university, and up until recently, I had no formal recognition for my studies.

    So, in short: I don’t really have an answer for you ;-)