Is your college degree barely worth the paper it’s written on? To discuss | Sonia sodha

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Iyears the past few decades, we have witnessed tremendous growth in the number of undergraduate students. In 1945, a tiny 2% of the population went to college; today, just over 43% young people in England go there; the last prediction is that 300,000 additional places will be needed by 2030. We are often told that graduates earn more on average than non-graduates; that universities stimulate local economies; and, of course, that a degree stretches the mind and nurtures critical thinking. Those who question this logic are easily dismissed as Philistines or reactionaries who scoff at the expansion that has taken place alongside record numbers of disadvantaged young people going to college.

But it is rather hazy to think about why we have expanded undergraduate education so significantly. Is more always better? What do we hope to achieve by sending more and more people to university, beyond expanding access (which could instead be done through the use of quotas of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds for the? admission to university)?

Economics professor Bryan Caplan raises an important question in a controversial new book, The case against education. To what extent do the benefits of a degree come from the skills you acquire while studying for it? And what about the sheet of paper at the end – what does your diploma certificate tell employers about the skills and attributes you might have possessed long before you filled out an application form for college? university?

Universities UK says institutions are adding over £ 60 billion in skills with each cohort of graduates. But this analysis simply wants to eliminate the Caplan question by assuming that any higher earnings graduates get are due to the skills they acquire upon graduation.

The truth is that a good chunk of the increase in income provided by a degree – we don’t know how much – is likely to come from the fact that a graduate, in the eyes of employers, has jumped through a hoop in a world. where a growing number of their peers are doing the same. If every other candidate for that bar job has a degree, you better have one too. It’s becoming more and more common to have a degree in jobs you wouldn’t have needed 30 years ago. South Korea warns: 70% of the country’s high school graduates go on to university, but recent graduates face relatively high rates of unemployment, and it is not uncommon to find graduates working as gatekeepers.

Increasing income potential is not the only reason we send young people to college. But to go beyond that, we need to be able to better answer the old question of what is undergraduate education for. A distinction is often drawn between those who see its primary purpose as the expansion of the mind that comes from learning for the sake of learning – and those who see it as important vocational training for specific jobs. Both traditions have a long history in our system.

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum strongly argues that in an increasingly uncertain world, it has never been so important for universities to “”educate the imagination”Rather than passing on specific skills. She’s not alone: ​​tech giant Apple has poached renowned thinkers such as Joshua Cohen be part of the faculty of his “university” of employees; Silicon Valley companies are not only hiring computer geniuses, but liberal arts graduates.

With the absorption of polytechnics in the 1990s, universities have played an increasing role in vocational training – and not just for professions like engineering or nursing. Universities are increasingly focusing on the “employability” of graduates; a new university that promises to take its students on a “personal development path», It is even guaranteeing them all a one year internship at companies such as Microsoft as part of a three-year degree.

So maybe we don’t need to focus specifically on what we want universities to achieve with young people. Former Minister of Higher Education David Willetts is very relaxed about the idea that different courses do different things: Studying history can be excellent preparation for certain jobs unrelated to history; but he is also a big fan of universities known for their specific skills, like construction in Southbank or media production in Bournemouth.

But that still doesn’t answer Caplan’s challenge. When it comes to hospitals and schools, we have unbiased – albeit imperfect – data on their ability to fulfill their missions. Since universities award their own degrees and the firsts from different universities cannot be considered comparable, this is a difficult task for undergraduate education. This is a problem, especially since we don’t really know if university is the best place to learn skills ‘on the job’, or if we are trying to emulate in our universities – at a much higher cost. high for taxpayers and students – what employers would have once provided.

Trying to generate reliable and comparable data on the skills that young people develop as a result of their studies is not without risk of reductionism. But if universities think their courses develop creativity, nurture critical thinking, and develop important professional skills, surely they should be ready to put that to the test?

This is essential in a world where it is entirely rational for individuals to choose to go to college so that they can compete on a level playing field – even if they suspect that the skills they are developing might not. not worth the price or the time. It might be difficult to develop the metrics we need to test the intuition behind the consensus in education that more is better. But at least we owe it to the young people to try.

Sonia Sodha is the editor-in-chief of The Observer. She presents Analysis: What are universities for? on BBC Radio 4, Sunday March 18, 9:30 p.m.

The image caption for this article was changed on March 16, 2018 because the image shows a variety of undergraduates doing the ‘pier walk’, not new students as an earlier version said.

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