Higher Education: Creating An Alternative Credential

As I write this, that Penguin, the famous publisher, has abolished degrees as a requirement for their recruitment, is on the news (see here). They join a handful of firms at the top of prestige and professional hierarchy, such as Deloitte, Pricewaterhouse Coopers and EY, in their search for a more diverse talent pool. 

One could, and possibly many would, dismiss this as mere publicity, rather than serious moves. And, indeed, this may represent a fraction of their total new intakes. For every Penguin taking themselves off-Degree, there may be an Accenture who would not want to look outside a few elite universities. But the point here is philosophical - degrees having dominated our educational thinking so vigorously that we forgot what this stood for - and not statistical. 

So, what do degrees stand for? Why did we come to accept that this ornate piece of paper, often deliberately evoking medieval imagery,  come to signify our knowledge, and even our abilities? And, how did come to dominate our social being, our conversations, our relationships, our prospects and all our aspirations? Peter Thiel may have been very elitist in urging people to leave college and start businesses, as that may be an unacceptable risk for all but the most gifted, but does he not have a point that many smart people has done perfectly well for themselves without a degree? In fact, there is even some statistical evidence: A study recently highlighted a common trait among very wealthy people, that they tend to self-educate rather than seeking formal education (see story).

Degrees, at its core, represent the power of the modern state. It is one of the various ways of control that the modern state apparatus uses to shape our thinking, making us subordinate to itself. A few generations ago, a degree was needed for Civil Service - indeed, the modern university was created to serve the State - and then to serve the expanding public sector. Degrees, like the other subtle mechanisms, such as the standard weights and measures, define the parameters to live by, overpowering individual choices, and even our immediate communities, and imposing a bureaucratic overhang within our private lives.

People have different opinions about how much control of our private lives should be ceded to the State, and whether such intrusion does more good than harm, but degrees as an instrument of state approval change the nature of the degrees. Instead of marking an admittance in a community - the Bachelors degree was an acceptance of the person in the Bachelorship (of Science, or Arts, as the case may be) - it becomes an end in itself, a credential of state approval. As public services recede from view, we have let the degree to become a proxy of entire social being, using it for jobs, marriages and even friendships - and even the most earnest admirer of the modern state may not be entirely comfortable with such omnipresence. And, indeed, degrees have fallen out of sync with the modern times, not just of commercial requirements of practical skills, but more importantly, the democratic respect that a modern day society takes for granted. Follow, for example, the arguments of Harvard's Lani Guinier's The Tyranny of Meritocracy (Beacon Press, 2015), and one would see how the Middle Class deity of degrees have become a tool of exclusion.

However, when we forget the purpose of a custom, it obscures the possibility of all alternatives. Degrees have become the Gold Standard of our time, a relic which, once the reason for its existence is forgotten, assumed a life of its own, forcing everything else of the table. 'We do not have an alternative' is all too common a justification for doing wrong things, and I am least surprised when middle class families scramble to send their children to universities, who are known to be substandard, just for the sake of the degree. 

If not degrees, what? The conversation has dramatically shifted in the recent times, as the 'Official' policy has embraced the necessity of 'Skills'. Partly to reflect the diminished role of the State in our economic lives, partly to embrace a new reality of contraction of public expenditure, and partly in a mistaken adjustment to new realities of work, the State doctrine has become, generally speaking, a search for new credential. Of course, the problem with this new alternative of Skills Certification is that it is still a scramble for a proxy, a state-mandate in another form, which is admittedly poorer, a degree alternative for austere times. It is not surprising that such credentials fail to take off, as people see them, justly, as poor cousins.

So, degrees as gold, skills certification as silver - this can only go so far! The radical departure in search of alternative credentials, as one of my colleagues put it, will be to construct the CV as credential. Instead of a proxy of one kind or another, this would mark a return to individual worth, the very thing that the employers like Penguin is trying to do. For educational institutions, this would mean constructing experiences, not just of work but of social interactions and connections, not towards earning a proxy credential, but a real projection of abilities. Instead of the mad search for degrees, this would be guided path to earning references and building a transcript of life, so to say. In practical terms, this may look like a Linkedin profile, perhaps with more validation, one that can not be faked.

This is a radical departure, but a practical one - one that rejects the whole idea of credentials as proxies, because the search for a proxy always assumes a life of its own, and installs real abilities at the core of educational experience. One may anticipate the complaints of all those who wants to hire people in the thousands - isn't this a huge logistical challenge exploring the individual worth of all candidates rather than screening most of them out by using a credential - but then, as we know instictively, this is both morally wrong and poor as a business practice (no wonder, these companies eventually get rid of more than half of those they recruit). If the point of degrees is to convey credible and relevant information about someone's true abilities, a CV with references can indeed be a more potent credential.



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