Is your degree more than just a piece of paper?

We live in a world where pragmatism dominates. Does a nurse or an accountant provide more value to society? When faced with a question like this, the idealists among us would question the definition of “value”. By contrast, a pragmatist would revert to the only objective benchmark available and declare that six figures are better than five.

It’s a sad indictment on the society we live in that there is a critical deficiency of nurses, but there are 100 applications for every vacancy in the City. This should come as no surprise given that financial incentives form the backbone of our capitalist economic system. However, it is perhaps surprising that when it comes to the decisions made by young people today regarding education, the same pragmatic rationality prevails.

From a student’s perspective, attending university is no longer seen as a privilege, particularly since education policy has sacrificed quality in favor of quantity. University is perceived as the automatic next step for those in further education, with young people thus failing to consider the true benefits. The resulting excess of graduates means that a degree is now seen by many as a necessity in a job-market saturated by fellow university leavers, a self-perpetuating cycle that devalues higher education for all those involved. As an 18 year old moving away from home for the first time, studying was at the bottom of my, and my peers, list of priorities. Unfortunately, we students often have no concept of the value of education and will do everything our power to minimize our workload, exacerbating the issue.

The problem is accentuated by the fact that employers have an all-consuming predisposition with the panacea that is a 2.1 degree classification. Whilst it would be impossible to assess the relative merits of every single job applicant, the blanket policy adopted by nearly all graduate employers is extremely unjust. A student graduating with a 59 average in Maths from Oxford will not even be considered by many of the same employers that will grant an interview to someone with a 60 average in Business and Marketing Management from Oxford Brookes. As a result, students place a detrimental level of importance on grades over the quality of education received.

If it is possible to get a first class degree through selective cramming and the completion of past-papers, what incentive is there for a student to acquire anything above a superficial understanding of the course material? Aside from over-emphasis on exam technique, another deficiency of university grading is that, put simply, some modules are easier than others. Given that the option to take a module that requires minimal work and will guarantee a first exists, even the most diligent student will sacrifice both their academic integrity and their personal interests in pursuit of a higher grade. This shortcoming is compounded by the fact that those taking the more rigorous modules tend to be stronger academically. As a result, given that students are marked relative to one another, the current system strongly discourage weaker students from pursuing specific modules as they will be “competing” with those at the top of the year.

At university, this pragmatic approach is not merely confined to students. Academics are valued and motivated by their research. What incentives, if any, are in place for a lecturer to provide decent undergraduate tuition? The success of their undergraduates has no bearing whatsoever on their research output. In the past, I have had conversations with lecturers who have made this quite explicit. On balance, it would be naïve to believe that academic staff would be committed to teaching undergraduates simply out of an ideological commitment towards academia. After all, academic staff at universities aren’t teaching professionals.

Whilst it is extremely difficult to measure the performance of lecturers, an inadequate system of checks and balances is detrimental to the learning of students. The lack of incentives means that teaching is seen as nothing but a hindrance to many academics. The end result is that undergraduates are often taught poorly structured, poorly prepared modules with inadequate forms of assessment (shortcomings of undergraduate tuition here)

Having just sat my finals, the diligence of students over the last few months has been readily apparent (none more so than at 2am in the library). Notwithstanding, in the grander scheme of things, I question what all this hard work is actually worth. Standardized testing from age 11 onwards has resulted in the commodification of education. As such, young people are poisoned by pragmatism and will never believe in education for education’s sake. This paints a depressing picture of the future; if the academics, teachers and policy makers of tomorrow are drained of any sense of idealism, who will be there to make the world a better place?

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