In these austere times of employment, returning to university seems a sensible step to stay fresh for the job market. Let me share some concerns those that have done so have for its worthiness.
An observation being made by many of my peers at university is how teaching methods and assessment methods are detached from real world employment or personal improvement needs. If you are thinking of studying the humanities this is most relevant to you. The university we are studying at specialises in the humanities, and the needs of a professional humanities based career differs to a science orientated one. It should be made clear that the people making this comment are 35 years to early 50’s, and most have been in higher management positions of successful organisations and companies. These comments are not coming from disgruntled underachievers without any professional experience. If you fit this description and are thinking of returning to university, read on.
These people have returned to higher education to improve and extend on an already acceptable level of experience. It is accepted that leaving any workplace requires a continuation of current trends and relevant experience to be professional effective. Unfortunately, many of my peers, having started the process, have come to believe that university, a degree or a masters is not an effective or worthwhile pursuit for achieving this aim.
Academia is a profession in itself and an important one. However, it is also promoted and encouraged as the necessary step to take before entering the workplace for the first time. Many employers still regard a degree as the minimum standard for entry to the professional world. Having worked in the professional world, many of my fellow mature students would argue the truth of that opinion.
University teaching and assessment methods railroad students to develop a specific learning strategies. It has been admitted by my peers that they struggle to re-learn academic techniques that they had to de-learn and found irrelevant in many professional circumstances. While they agree, and expected, that a degree is different to professional relevant qualifications. Few of them expected the process to be so counterintuitive to the actual process that are needed and used in a professional context. They argue that if they applied academic techniques to professions outside of academia they would fail to deliver.
Assessment in the form of written assignments and examinations entail specific standardised requirements. These requirements, while beneficial in assessing a students ability to respond to accepted academic material and established principles, do not allow for freedom of thought that can contribute improvement of professional needs. Academic ideas must always be tethered to existing principles regardless of those principles relevance in relation to modern needs.
Another aspect of academia is the insistence of all encompassing knowledge. Another example would be that in order to gain a high level of assessment a student must develop their argument or theory around contradictory principles. While a broad knowledge is required to understand opposing views or contradictory theories, the work place does not spend time focusing on opinions or facts that are counterproductive to the business needs.
This brings me to an interesting thought. Is disproving a principle more productive than focusing on proving one? Academia asks ‘what do you think of this and if you think it is wrong, why?’ In university you must remember that you are constantly assessing other peoples work. The real world asks ‘what do we want to achieve and how do we prove that it is correct?’
As a topical, and slightly mischievous, example. Verbally ask Google on your phone why it did not pay tax in the UK. The question is unanswered. If it were we would assume it would be along the lines that the benefits of having high net revenue would only benefit the customer in the long term. Businesses do not focus or dwell on negatives, they progress for positives. I am sure if you ask Donald Trump about the competition, he will not wax lyrical about the potentially productive application of their views and then develop a strong argument to why they are wrong. Politicians famously answer the questions they want to answer and ignore the questions actually asked.
Having done a quick assessment of my peers, many became top of their former professions because they understood the job, not an exemplary understanding of broad principles. Additionally, all of the lecturers are seasoned academics. They have to have a PhD to become one. Small forays into the real world is their foundation on a broader aspect of real business dynamics, but most stayed within the circumference of an academic infrastructure. The criticism is not towards the lecturers, who’s expertise is respected. The criticism is towards the confined and comfortable processes that have historically developed to assess other academics. Marking criteria must be the most archaic and biased way to assess a persons capabilities. Criteria for marking develop for the convenience of the markers — a standardised method that can be followed. The method is supposed to prevent bias — preventing a lecturer grading higher for students they like or agree with — but in reality it produces bias by expecting everybody to conform to a set learning style. If you don’t relate to the material in the way that university criteria expects of you, you will not achieve. I remember a previous boss, while he was doing an archeology distance learning degree for fun, frustratingly throw his arms in the air when reading feedback on an assessment, he said infuriated “Of course I did not reference my source, I was the one doing the digging”.
Business has to be reactive, and to be reactive you must have knowledge of the market and your likely threats. Knowledge is power, but it is only the right knowledge that benefits us. Dwelling on the wrong knowledge (not knowledge that is wrong, just wrong for the purpose you are using it for) has negative influence on achieving excellence.
There is a dichotomy between the academic principles of knowledge and the practical principles of knowledge. Ultimately, academia may appear to be a suitable training pond for progression into the professional sphere, however, observing the training pond by returning to it after surviving the professional colosseum highlights its potential failings. Academia propagates academics, which in certain fields is a necessity and important skill, however it also perpetuates academia; meaning that it reiterates what is already known with brief flashes of insight and excellence punctuating the smog of accepted knowledge.
Having written this I look back at my time in the work place. Personally I think a simple summary would be this: business assesses you on results, while academia assesses you on knowledge. Undoubtably we need knowledge to make our initial steps, but for mature people in-between professions or post-professional another another degree — or your first — may not be the best step. All my peers love studying and bathe themselves in the environment for new knowledge, but the methodology and strategies used to assess that knowledge are far removed from real world applications.
Myself? I appreciate some, if not all, of the concerns highlighted above. University at middle age is a very personal thing. Anyone approaching it must already be aware of who they are and how they learn. I agree that university does not fit my learning style but as an individual you must develop your own methods to counteract failings in a system. Some things will never unite though, and I have had my fair share of fantastic grades, tempered with disappointing ones.
Ultimately you must look at what you want university to achieve for you at middle age. Traditionally university is a gateway for the young to enter the professional world. Once you have entered and succeeded through that gateway, think hard about the need to return.