Monday, 19 March 2018

Universities Becoming Obsolete? Not yet awhile

(Ministry of Education, 2017, p. 1)
I recently listened to a TEDx talk by Jack Delosa run at Macquarie University in 2015, entitled "The future of education is not what it used to be". Jack had some interesting ideas, but the core of his presentation was that university degrees were becoming no longer necessary in the 'real' world.

As an educator in the 'dirty boots' brigade (the polytechnic sector), I see the transition which students make from commencing a certificate or a diploma, to the maturity in both thinking and self-importance once they complete a degree. Diploma students are those most often labelled 'entitled' by faculty members. They seem have more unrealistic confidence in their own abilities and to reflect that there is nothing left to learn: apparent over-confidence and ego. On the other hand, degree students appear to gain realistic confidence in their own abilities and understand that they don't know everything: self-confidence and a drive to keep learning. There are, of course, exceptions and outliers in both groups.

I have no evidence for this view aside from my personal observation over a decade, leading to my dawning realisation that the mindsets of the student groups as they work through their education appears to be different. So it is with a little trepidation that I hear about the shortening of degree programmes and the micro-bite approach to education through MOOCs, because I think that time is a key factor in completing undergraduate training.

Time changes how we relate to the world, the endurance to complete gives us a common identity to share, and is a clear demonstration of stick-to-it-iveness to show a potential employer that we have grit and perseverance. However it is the process that also changes us. It matures our ideas, it helps us truly 'know' why certain things are important.

In his talk, Jack said that Ernst & Young (EY) had scrapped the requirement for an undergraduate degree in 2015. This shocked me, as to become a Chartered Accountant in Australia and New Zealand you must have a four year undergraduate degree (currently transitioning to a three year requirement). So I did a bit of digging, and I am not sure that Jack has clearly represented the situation. EY has not scrapped its degree requirements for legal, accounting or management consultancy positions. It has 'scrapped' degree requirements for support positions: positions which, I think, EY did not require an undergraduate degree for anyway. Perhaps we could call this PR.

Education will continue to evolve. It has to, to keep pace with our shifting world. The system is probably already being disrupted to some extent with MOOCs. But to create wholesale change, we will need different models, and we don't yet have them. For example:
  • We would need a global education equivalency framework so that the fragments of training we pick up around the world can be collectively measured as a body of training for professional memberships.
  • How can we shift people into needed areas? More people are going to university, and fewer go into trades: so we are short of tradespeople. Is the role of education to influence choice?
  • How do we ensure value? Should that be the job of education? Degree holders still earn more than a tradesperson, but not by much, according to research done by Business and Economic Research Limited (BERL, 2017). This is largely because a tradesperson starts earning during their training, so the degree-holder gets off to a slower start. 
  • The Universities of New Zealand research suggests a graduate averages $1.38m more over their career than a non-graduate (2016). The Ministry of Education suggests that level 4 graduates - to which trades falls into -  earn on average $50k ten years after completion, as compared to an undergraduate degree holder, who will earn $75k after ten years. Please note that this is not entirely equivalent to a trade, as this includes all level 4 certificate holders. This could conceivably contain a Certificate in Basket Weaving alongside a Certificate in Plumbing.
  • Is it the job of education to explain that, while either path works, the (a) the duration of training is roughly the same, and (b) the average university graduate usually holds more powerful positions than tradespersons?
  • Is it the job of education to debunk the perception that all degree training will earn a graduate lots of money? That was not true in the past, so is unlikely to be true now. If you do a BA in Art because you like painting, you will still scrape an existence as an artist unless you are Andy Warhol (slim chance!), whether it is 1950 or 2050.
  • Do we have the tools to truly balance cost and benefit? Will employers hire us for that important first job? Student fees are high, but our students pay their loans off - on average - by age 33. Apprentices, of course, have no fees. Careers New Zealand has a study tool to compare the likely earnings, positions and sectors using diplomas and degrees in New Zealand at https://www.careers.govt.nz/tools/compare-study-options/, but such tools will need to be available globally for us to make truly informed choices.
Our New Zealand education sector is not yet showing a clear pattern of change. Our institutions range from fairly wealthy to just making ends meet, with CPIT and Aoraki Polytechnic amalgamating recently. Despite this, I feel we have too many institutions: eight universities and sixteen polytechnics for 4.5 million New Zealanders. That is a city the size of Sydney with 24 government-funded tertiary institutions. Too many.

However, until we have something else - systems, processes, equivalency, comparability - to replace Unis, I can't see real change happening. Perhaps we may end up with more of a Polytech-type of vocational education, where learning is more applied, and it is refreshed again and again with shorter courses after our undergraduate training is complete.

Watching this space...


Sam

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