Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Advantages and disadvantages of a university degree?

Choosing A British University

What qualifies me to offer an opinion here? Well, I hope you feel the following quick resume entitles me to a least an informed voice on the subject:

1. I've done a variety of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, from petrol station attendant, postman, factory operative - food industry, factory operative- light manufacturing, office clerk.

2. I've done a variety of middle management jobs, from games design team coordinator, marketing executive, marketing manager, sales and marketing manager

3. I've held main board positions and share holding directorships, and participated in a multi million pound management buyout as one of team of 5 people.

4. I have a private consulting business

5. I have a bachelors degree in International Relations and Modern History

6. I have a master of business administration degree

7. I have a post graduate qualification in adult learning and teaching

8. I am presently under-taking doctoral research into managerial mind sets and individual and organisational strategy making

9. I have undertaken rudimentary training in NLP & transactional analysis

10. I am presently a full-time academic in a leading UK university, educating undergraduate and masters students, together with a variety of pastoral and subject group management roles.

11. I design and build modules for undergraduate and post graduate degrees

12. I design and build degree courses for bachelor and masters degrees

13 I am involved in a wide range of knowledge transfer consultancy projects for large public and private organisations

14. I have two sons neither of whom have any current interest in higher education, both are happy and succesful

15. I have family and friends whose sons and daughters are presently undergraduates in a variety of UK universities

When I left university I ended up in the gaming business, in a company that was dominated by Production, Electronic, Hardware and Software engineers. I vividly remembering being asked by one of the managers "So, tell me, what possible use is a degree in history in a business like this"

Being young and naive I stumbled for an answer and was troubled for many years afterwards by the question. Today I would answer in a flash that "It helps prevent me from asking dumb-assed questions like that!"

Many people who have not experienced any form of higher education operate from the assumption that it is a straight continuation of previous 'taught' experience, and this holds true for a significant number of new under-graduates who pop out of the 'forced' high school level system expecting 'Sir' or 'Mam' or 'Miss' to give them all of the answers. It is interesting to observe that culturally many Chinese and Middle Eastern undergraduate students who come to study in Western universities are presently very deferential to the 'lecturer' and take a while to feel comfortable with 'questioning' what they are introduced to. Like all students the graduate process of developing a self directed critical learning faculty comes as a challenge.

A crucial advantage of university degree is that it is a 'transformational' process that changes the way a person undertakes learning (by becoming more self-directed), changes the way a person manages and manipulates information, and changes the adaptability of the individual in the face of problematic and ambiguous situations.

Now, of course, the counterbalance to this is that 'theoretical' understanding has to be set against real world experience. Otherwise we have the disadvantage of obtaining a degree, which is the sometimes mistaken belief of its owner that they are extremely smart and infallible. In worse cases it can emerge as an un-justified patronising and arrogant attitude.

It is interesting that people focus on the pros and cons of the degree qualification, seeing it as a 'thing', a piece of paper. Of course the certificate is an indicator of a standard and recognition of the effort and hard work. However a more helpful way of seeing it is if you think about the the pros and cons of going through the DEGREE PROCESS. The certificate itself is not going to get the job - you are, with your attitude, humility, diligence, enthusiasm, team working skills, problem solving skills, and self -management skills.

Nowadays a first degree is becoming simply the 'table stake' to be in the game. The opportunity to be employed not the 'right' to a job. In the UK system this takes the learner from 'level 4' learning to 'level 6'. Masters qualifications at 'level 7' are becoming differentiators, and no doubt Phds and DBA's will in the future at 'level 8'. The educational philosophy that underpins the transformation process can be checked out by looking at the work of Bloom and Perry and Mezirow

One down side to advancing your higher education is the need to become more specialised, and that can often lead to becoming part of a very tiny minority. There is also the danger that you lose your common touch, i.e. the ability to communicate thoughts and ideas effectively in approachable and understandable language, and to be concerned with matters that connect to the everyday. That's not to argue for dumbing down, or not exploring the fine semantics of say, epistemological philosophy. Just to say do it with your eyes wide open and realise that your 'subject' might not rock anyone elses boat.

Ultimately the process of a degree ought to be set in the context of your life overall. What role does it play in making your life happier and better? If you think its a passport (despite the stats) to a higher salary then think again. YOU earn the salary, roles and position not the piece of paper, albeit it helps with the 'first cut' For 3 years+ disadvantages are, deadline driven lifestyle, mentally challenging and demanding, and a continual exposure to the prospect of failure. Are you happy to put yourself in that space? If you do and you get through then that in itself is character building and worthy of merit.

My eldest son has taken a different path, bright lad indeed, not an 'academic' atom in his body (at the moment) He's just qualified as a junior electrician, he's got no student loan debt, he is learning other trades too, he's a great plasterer, kitchen fitter and OK plumber. Crucially he is happy!

For me higher education has been well, shall we education. I feel my world view is broader, I feel I can discuss issues without feeling lost even if they aren't 'my subject' and I know it sounds corny, but as each new learning experience opens a door ( bit like The Matrix) you see hundreds of new doors beyond that one. This has taught me realise that the prospect of 'knowing all the answers' is a very remote prospect indeed, and to be very wary of people who claim they do.

For me that's what is really interesting is the question.. so what is it that causes a person to stop opening the doors? Think of the Managing Director who claims to 'know' his business, or the person who can't see a way out of the situation they are in. Curiosity is perhaps one of the most genetically/ memetically important aspects of the human being.

Generically I would suggest that having a degree indicates that you have developed a capacity to ask questions rather than regurgitate answers, you will also have at your disposal conceptual frameworks that can help you make sense of the world more readily than someone who doesn't, you will also have the ability to marshall and move ideas and information around. None of these things are excluded from someone who doesn't have a degree, its just that like my son he is a better and safer electrician than me because he is qualified. Would you claim to be a genetic engineer by looking at the mould in your fridge? , or perhaps claim some knowledge about quantum mechanics by looking at your savings balance :)

Finally I would invite you think in terms of University AND Life rather than anything mutually exclusive. I would see a bachelors degree as the start of the journey not the end. I would do it because you're interested and it feels right for you, not because you feel you ought, or you like wearing square hats and a cape, or you expect it to make you 'special'in the eyes of anyone else but your mum and dad.

And finally, if I was to offer what I feel (at this moment) is THE lesson to be gained from a university education it would be this:

The capability of moving from The Simplistic, through the Complex, to the Simplified is a capability that underpins, creativeness, innovation, leadership, and facilitation of understanding. This process has to be experienced to be understood.
RR - BA (Hons), MBA, pgce :)(see its what you thought about what I've written that matters and nothing to do with those letters after my name isn't it!)

Other posts relating to graduate entry to The University of Life can be found here:
Is a Degree Worth Anything in a Recession
Advantages of a Masters Degree
Shopping for a Degree?
Plagiarism is simply Cheating
How To Choose A British University

Will I earn more?
Lifetime Earning Value 2009 A degree is worth £100,000 in the UK


  1. I'm just formulating a post about University Degrees and Theatre. As far as I know, as long as you have a degree, you are able to open up a drama school.
    There is a massive number of budding actors quing up to get into drama schools and I'm investigating why and what effect his is having on the industry.
    My ignorant initial view is that people are blinded by celebrity and the thought of an easy career.


  2. Well said Rednose! That's the myth, people somehow think its going to make it 'easy'. Totally concur with your thoughts on 'celebophilia' too...Why is it that people live the life they have been given by trying to step into the life of someone else. Acting is surely the only profession where this is valid, and as the ancient Greeks recognised you adopt the 'persona' you don't become the other person.

  3. I recently received a Bachelor's Degree and although it was a valuable learning experience, I'm extremely disappointed in it. I am very ambitious and willing to go beyond what's required of me but how will any employers know that if they don't give me a chance. Employers claim that I am not qualified for any jobs because I lack job-specific experience. Even when I tried to get an internship, employers chose candidates who had completed previous internships. If I'm not underqualified, then I'm overqualified because I have a degree. I have been looking for a decent job for quite some time now. I know it takes time and I will have to start from the bottom, which I am certainly willing to do, only if someone would just give me a chance! :( The professors at my college brainwashed students into believing that they would certainly get a great well-paying job after college if they did well in their coursework. I guess that's necessary, if you want students to not drop out, and continue paying dearly to take the classes. It's just another conspiracy!

  4. There is also the danger that you loose your common touch,

    surely it's lose not loose?

  5. Thanks for spotting the typo anonymous :) chunking down and reductionism was never my thing!

  6. I have the same opinion about university. It's not so much facts you learn but more the skills you learn that help you in daily life. I'm only in high school so it's nice to hear an opinion that other people have. My dad's a business prof at the university here in Prince George, BC Canada and he's always talking about students who refuse to work in partners and the such. He's more teaching them to suck it up and act like adults because they'll be treated like adults in their career (whether they like their co-workers or not). Thanks again!

    BTW I'm not the same anonymous as the other one.

  7. An important observation 'A' :) There's lots written about a) whether business degrees just 'infect graduates' with the same orthodoxies as the everyone else (hamel and prahalad) and also whether they should be 'handmaidens of industry' sufferning from client worship rather than independent and critically refelective thought. Have a chat with your dad about that!