The New Education Credentials

This has been the best and worst of the times for Higher and Professional Education. While people pursuing Higher and Professional Education has attained a new peak globally, new questions about its relevance and cost have arisen too. The expansion of formal education has crowded out the ecosystems of informal learning, in effect depriving societies with one of the tried-and-tested coping mechanisms for social and technical change (see my earlier post on this), but it has offered little in its space. Its claims on the territory, in various avatars of Lifelong Learning or Massive Open Online Courses, have underachieved, being too structured, too bureaucratic, too content driven and too top-down. Finally, its claims of being able to assess everything overshot its capability, and created dissonance with employers as they struggled to work out hard measures of the 'soft' skills. 

However, among all these debates and questions, one that attracts maximum attention is the one about Degrees. Degrees are the tools that Higher Education monopolises, and through it, structure the market for education and skills. Over the years, with the sponsorship of modern state, degrees have become essential for an ambitious person. They have become undisputed proxies for knowledge and expertise, even for ability. And, with so much prestige vested into it, the credibility of the degrees were fast challenged as the ability of the college to cope with the changing requirements of skills and jobs came into question. The automatic assumption that degrees lead to a job and career had to be abandoned, for good empirical reasons. The degree question - whether degrees are worth anything - has, therefore, come to the forefront of the debate.

Now, the universities have responded to this by pointing out to the 'degree premium', the amount of additional income earned by a degree holder over that of a High School graduate. This rationale is flawed, as this shows the stagnation and contraction of the wages of High School graduates more than wage increases of degree holders. Besides, this is one case of misleading averages. One of the key economic trends right now is that a few top graduates, aided by more capable IT, is earning more and more. What is called a 'degree premium' is really an IT premium. This may tell us that a top-end university degree leading to those winner jobs are becoming more rewarding, but this does not explain anything for those students joining nameless universities for pointless degrees leading to a hopeless future.

This 'degree premium' claim is typical of the territory-grabbing rhetoric of college: It undermines all other forms of education. High School, which was invented for work skills, become a mere appendage to the degree train; vocational qualifications are seen as poor alternatives and misconceived notions about awarding PhDs in Plumbing (I heard someone say this at a conference speech, for real) come about. While the employers become more weary about the lack of practical skills and life exposure of the new recruits, the Universities, driven to desperation by their increasing and unfilled seats, sell the snake-oil of degrees as an end in itself, creating more debt and despair among students who find out the truth only too late.

What makes this situation even worse is that the degrees are essentially closed phenomena. Despite all the claim of 'credits' and 'transferable skills', it is hard to move from one institution to another or one degree to another. Mixing degrees with actual work is horrendously difficult; taking breaks and coming back to education is tremendously costly. All these difficulties are imposed purely to keep the mystic of the degrees, the prestige that sells it. And, indeed, rather ironically, the less prestigious universities cling to these 'processes' even more earnestly, hoping that the students will equate these roadblocks as rigour and treat their pretencions as prestige.

However, once the very proposition of degrees come into question, these irritants become more and more obvious. At a time when even Central Bankers are being asked to become transparent (as the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, explained in her speech this morning at the Bank of England), Universities can't hide much longer. Increasingly, the public purse they depend on forcing onto them greater disclosure requirements and accountability for outcome, and this is raising all the different questions about the processes and promises of a degree.

So far, the universities have responded with degree-lite credentials, handed through the MOOCs and other platforms, but these are typical cases of old-stuff-new-bottle. The key questions of relevance in a world of dynamic knowledge, recognition of practical work, engagement in real life, inclusivity and flexibility remain wholly or partially unresolved. But, in a way, cracks that appear in the fortune of degrees provide opportunities to create new education credentials. The biggest opportunity here is Mixed or Open Degrees, which co-opt the existing Vocational/ Professional credentials and offer degree pathways in a flexible manner. Admittedly, this is not a new thing: This has been discussed ever since the 70s, and there are a number of arrangements that exist today, particularly in the European context.

But the architecture of these are still too archaic, bound by too many rules and limitations. For example, look at the Accounting Qualifications offered by ACCA in Britain, which allows an undergraduate degree option with Oxford Brookes University for those who completed a certain number of ACCA papers successfully. It is a great option, one of the most popular UK qualification options among the international students, with hundreds of thousands of students opting for it. And, yet, it has all kinds of administrative regulations - when you have to register for it, how long is the registration valid - which clearly indicates that flexibility is not one of the objectives of this exercise. Also, this is not yet an open system: ACCA qualifications are perfectly acceptable to employers, but the way universities recognise it for credits, vary widely. The way degrees are conceived, a closed proprietary product, explains why Oxford Brookes University may treat completion of certain ACCA papers as equivalent to almost three year studies but another university may not: But that is precisely the madness I am trying to draw attention to.

In conclusion, I believe new credentials need to emerge, and will emerge. There are opportunities for everyone, but most for the universities, which will face a crisis in confidence sooner or later. Some of my work now is directed at exploring Open Formats for Academic Recognition, a sort of Academic Middleware which connects Professional and Vocational knowledge, lived experience and academic abilities. I am conscious that Academic Recognition is ultimately a regulatory thing - there is that vast infrastructure of licensing that underpin it - and any private effort is really doomed. But, as I hope, it may be possible if the employers are brought into play, particularly in developing countries, where both the job scarcity and the skills gap are hitting at the same time. My engagements in India and Philippines over the last several years were very instructive, and eye-opening regarding how degrees really become a problem and leads to de-skilling the population. As I reconsider my career options and get ready to hit the road again, I am signing up collaborators for this next project of creating Open and Flexible qualifications.


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