Academic deflation

I once had a conversation with a man who scared me.

It was over 20 years ago, and I remember him being quite a lovely fellow. He was simply proud of his son earning his PhD.

What scared me was his conviction that in order to keep up in the imminent future, an undergraduate qualification would not be enough; one must earn a postgraduate qualification. Not to get ahead, but to remain competitive.

With the ink still drying on my Bachelor of Science degree, my heart sank at the prospect of several years’ more slog.

The man was describing academic inflation and upon reflection, I realised I had experienced it already. Only a few years prior, as I was studying my high school diploma, “going to uni” was all the rage. Accounting was inexplicably popular, and competition for the trendiest major – Communication – drove its course entry score to the dizzying heights of Medicine and Law.

Not going to uni was seriously uncool, which no doubt contributed to a shortage of tradies such as plumbers, who to this day can charge a fortune for changing a washer.

The parallels to Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches are uncanny. This is a story about creatures called Sneetches, some of whom have a green star on their belly, some of whom do not. Of course the latter group covets those little status symbols, and their envy is duly exploited by an entrepreneur who invents a Star-On machine.

After the plain-bellies eagerly pay to get their own stars, the elitism of the original star-bellies wanes, and so the entrepreneur invents a Star-Off machine. The former elites pay an inflated price to reclaim their privilege, and so the pendulum swings back and forth with stars going on and off bellies until all the Sneetches run out of money.

Star confetti

Back in the real world which recently declared Australia’s most educated generation faces the worst job prospects in decades, I wonder: is academic inflation undergoing a Sneetch-like reversal?

The UK office of Ernst & Young ruffled a few feathers when they dropped the degree requirement for their entry-level jobs, while Elon Musk famously maintains that you don’t need a degree to work at Tesla.

I admit to not taking too much notice of this trend until Google launched its Career Certificates. Their courses can be completed online over several months, and they cover red hot topics such as data analytics and UX design. Their website says it all:

Learn job-ready skills to start or advance your career in high-demand fields. These certificates developed by Google connect you to top national employers who are hiring for related roles.

Furthermore, the tech giant’s SVP of Global Affairs claims we will consider our new career certificates as the equivalent of a four-year degree for related entry-level roles.

Wow… if it’s good enough for Google, then “top national employers” isn’t an empty promise. Suddenly that little green star doesn’t shine so bright.

Perhaps after years of academic inflation, the pendulum is swinging back towards academic deflation. The prospect should sound alarm bells for a sector that’s already reeling from the impact of COVID-19.

If the trend towards short, practical, employer-sanctioned courses continues, one day of course we’ll collectively realise that the way to get ahead of the pack will be to embark on a longer, deeper dive that leads to a qualification with scholarly gravitas.

Hence the next generation of students going to university may no longer be doe-eyed teenagers craving a foot in the door, but experienced operators seeking to enhance their careers.

Which will in turn attract the young ones back when they realise they’re missing out on all the best jobs.

That is until everyone, once again, has stars upon thars.

4 thoughts on “Academic deflation

  1. I think we are seeing a couple of phenomena at present:
    1. A degree is no longer a once and done thing. Employees must now position themselves as lifelong learners and possess the means and flexibility to engage in both formal and informal learning opportunities.
    2. Furthermore, we are seeing a pattern of unbundling of university functions, where elements of the traditional university are being ceded to corporations and R&D on companies, where the fail fast philosophy is disrupting traditional discovery methods that are slower and more meticulous.

    It is important to ask what this means for universities and the traditional patterns of research and educational delivery. As a society, I think it is also important for us to ask what this means for the development of knowledge and innovation, how much we want to protect knowledge as a public good, and what we may be willing to give up and leave to private enterprise.

  2. Thanks for your insightful comments, David.

    Indeed, it is healthy for a profession to challenge itself in order to adapt and remain relevant. Clearly universities have a crucial role to play in society, but the nature of that role is changing.

  3. I definitely agree with you, Ryan.

    The role of universities is evolving and no one can stop this phenomena from happening. I am in my 4th year of university, studying a dual bilingual degree in Early Childhood and Primary Education. I still have one more year to complete it. Though it sounds fancy, after four years of hard studies, exhausting assignments and months of internships in different schools, I still feel not prepared at all to face a whole room full of students and their parents.

    In contrasts, I see many other professionals of my same sector who have not taken such a long path but are efficiently delivering their lessons with a self-confidence I look up to have one day. This to me shows how a degree does not always guarantee full qualification. Sometimes I look at university and think “Is this worthy? Is this worthy of my parents´money?”

    I do not know any more…The only think I am fully aware is that I will specialize in a Montessori Education after college. Which leads to the same conclusion again…So many years of undergraduate studies…so much money spent, for graduating with the feeling that I need to take a postgraduate course and new studies to become the professional I want!

  4. Thank you so much for sharing your own experience, Cristina.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think your dual degree will go to waste. The education you’ve earned will be valuable, and if nothing else it looks great on your résumé!

    That by no means invalidates how you feel, of course, and it reinforces my view that students of many professions need a shorter, practice-oriented qual to get a foot in the door and build up real experience. This will also allow them to bail out (fail fast) if they decide they don’t like it, without being beholden to sunk cost.

    I hope you find the pathway you need to deliver your lessons with confidence, and I wish you all the very best.

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