Degree or no degree, that is the question

Looking different

I am writing this sat around the pool on holiday in the South of France. My book selection for the holiday, which included the “Third man” by Peter Mandelson and, “Through the language glass” by Guy Deutscher, had left me relatively uninspired.

The Sunday papers however had much to say, they were all fired up by the recently announced A level and GCSE results. An impressive 97.6 % passed their A levels this year (97.5% 2009) 27% achieved A or A star – 8% were awarded the new A star.

The Sunday Times contained several articles on the value of a university education. The one that caught my eye was written by AA Gill, who I have always felt had a style that was pompous, unnecessarily critical (yes I know he’s a critic) and over important. Yet he was writing from the humble perspective, of someone who did not go to university (He also failed his 11 plus and every other exam after that – see last month’s blog) and so does not have a degree. Nor apparently does Jeremy Clarkson. He (AA) argues that it is experience (practical not general) that matters, and that neither university nor a gap year provides this.

Yet more and more people are attending University, 6% in the 1950’s, and 43% this year, encouraged to do so by the higher salaries graduates command, parental aspiration and the previous Labour government. Oh and perhaps the poor job prospects……

This increase in graduate’s means it becomes inevitable that having a degree will no longer be the exclusive club it once was. It does not of course follow that the degree itself is any less worthy in terms of its academic rigour; although many will imply that this is the case. Differentiating yourself by way of a degree to potential employers does however become much harder.

And although it seems an enviable position for a country to be in, to have an ever increasing educated workforce, the current model is not only financially unsustainable, (Average debt for a student leaving university is now £25,000) worse it may be failing to deliver to both student and employer.

But what could be done?
One idea is to reduce degrees from three to two years. Although it could be argued that some degrees genuinely benefit from having three years, for most two is probably sufficient. Not of course my idea, the two year degree has recently been promoted by Vince Cable, and Buckingham University already offers them. This might be an area that the private sector Universities will look to invade.

It may also be time to accept that full time education is a luxury that neither the individual, the individual’s parents nor the state can afford. I am not suggesting that people should not study and obtain a degree; it’s just that studying for it full time may no longer be the best route. Ideally students should continue their education whilst in full time employment. I fully appreciate that this is easier said than done, particularly in the current environment where getting a job is at best difficult, but higher education should not be seen as a substitute for being unemployed!

Obtaining a degree in two rather than three years will make the whole process more affordable and by studying whilst in employment the individual will gain the practical on the job experience thought so important by Mr AA Gill.

Of course employers will still have a large choice of graduates to choose from, and the degree on its own may not differentiate one individual from another, but as is the case in the post degree job market, the employer will have to choose the best candidate based not only on their academic record but also on their level of practical experience and what they can actually do.

But what of the gap year? Of course you should still have a gap year, but perhaps not until you are 30 plus, when you might have a better idea what to do and perhaps more importantly would really appreciate and value it…..

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