Education failing by degrees
12 October 2008
Education, education, education. The governing party in the UK, where I hail from, made this its battle cry when it swept into power 11 years ago. Education, you see, was to be the bedrock of our country’s future success.
I am not going to comment on how I feel the UK government has progressed in updating its education system, instead my thoughts are about the type of education we give our young people.
These thoughts were triggered by the release from Times Higher Education of a list of the top 200 universities. Universities are critically important when it comes to pushing forward the boundaries of technology, but how well do they move with the times in terms of training young people to do real jobs?
Every country has huge differences in its education system and my knowledge of countries other than the UK varies between the limited and the non-existent, which makes this a difficult article to write if it is to be a true representation of the world’s higher education system. So my objectives are significantly less grand – my points are more to do with a general academic snobbery and their place in modern society.
My first point is that I recently spoke to a young man from Nigeria who had studied in his own country but had gone on to do his Masters degree in the UK. His experience was that the standard of education he received in Nigeria was as good as it was in the UK, but if he was going to enter the global job market in the electronics industry then his hometown qualifications were virtually worthless, just because they were gained in Nigeria. As if to back this up, the list of top Universities features none from Nigeria and in fact only one from the whole continent – The University of Cape Town in South Africa.
There is also the point of the value of degrees in general due to their proliferation. This is where I retreat to my knowledge of the UK and assume that it is similar elsewhere. In the past universities trained students to be academically and technically in command of their subject. In most cases students were being trained in a subject, not to do a particular job.
Then we had polytechnics, with their sandwich courses resulting in vocational qualifications like National Diplomas. These were given to students who had trained to do ‘real’ jobs. So a solder manufacturer for example, might want to add a graduate with a degree in chemistry to its product development team, whereas an electronics manufacturer might prefer to employ a student with a production engineering diploma, who already had work experience through his or her course, to join their manufacturing team. Note I use the word ‘prefer’.
Nowadays virtually every college and polytechnic seems to have been ‘upgraded’ to university status and every course results in a degree. The opportunities these days for a manufacturer to employ someone with a bit of work experience and a bit of practical training are limited – all candidates now bring three years of classroom taught information but little evidence to suggest that they are right for the job or that the job is right for them.
My point here then is just having a load of universities does not mean that the recruitment needs of the real world are going to be met. The education system should always be there, first and foremost, to educate and train our young people. I think sometimes that academics can forget this and get a bit carried away with their own self-importance – and this comes across, to me at least, in the snobbery within the academic profession.
It takes me back to the Nigerian student who believed his Nigerian education was on a par with that on offer in the UK. Add to that anecdote the fact that of the 200 universities on the list 29 come from the UK (17 in the top 100) while exactly twice as many came from the US (37 in the top 100). Meanwhile the universities of Sao Paolo and Buenos Aires only sneak in at numbers 196 and 197 respectively as the South American continent’s only representatives. With only one from Africa I do sense a certain amount of snobbery (this list was obtained by a combination of opinions from academics, students and employers). It is easy to say that Harvard and Yale, Oxford and Cambridge are the top universities, but is this really to do with actual results, educational quality and earned respect, or is it more to do with tradition and snobbery? You could even take it one stage further and say that countries like Spain and Italy only have one institution each in the list, so maybe there is an English-speaking bias there as well. Considering the roles that they play in the technology sector it is surprising that China has only six universities and India only two, compared with 11 from Japan.
An interesting footnote, the response in the British press and academia was that of disappointment that the USA was clearly leading the field. The fact that the UK was comfortably second on this list, despite the relatively small population and resources, was ignored in favour of picking up on the point that Yale had established itself as second on the list in favour at the expense of Oxford and Cambridge. This is truly the land of the ‘glass half empty’!
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