“But when they began handing out doctorates for comparative folk dancing and advanced fly-fishing, I became too stink in’ proud to use the title. I won’t touch watered whiskey and I take no pride in watered-down degrees.”
― Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
I was a panelist at an event I attended this past Friday and I warned the organizer who invited me that I wasn’t entirely sure what I could contribute. Nevertheless, not one to turn down an opportunity to share certain views publicly, I went as unprepared as one could be. I had no notes, no opening statement, not really any expectations. In order to have the latter, necessity demands that you have some sense of what it is you are facing.
The occasion was a meeting held at UNBSJ concerning the future of business education, a subject in which, as I said (and shared very clearly with all those I attendance) I make no claims to having any expertise. I wasn’t surprised to encounter a number of familiar faces when I arrived. Having spent the last number of years involved in politics, I’ve met many people who look to the university as an integral piece of any plans either for sustaining or for improving Saint John’s viability as an urban centre. Fortunately (for me), I was the last panelist to present so I had time to listen to others and formulate something to say. It didn’t take me long to realize the approach I would take, largely because so much of what I was hearing related so well to an element of the larger problem I have been pursuing in earlier offerings here at unabsolutedotcom.
All three who preceded me brought business experience to the discussion, whether that experience was as business owners, executives in companies or in other roles. Considering that three subsequent keynote speakers had a similar mix of backgrounds, as well as considerable academic experience, I might have expected to be out of my depth.
Again, fortunately, I was well-served by the very thing which has occupied so much of my time here, namely, a lack of clarity when it comes to just exactly what it is we are considering. Listening and making notes for myself, I detected what I choose to call “muddiness” in our considerations of “business education”, the same muddiness that I believe is so much at the root of problems with “education” at large.
Time and again, speakers, as well as those asking questions, returned to the specific needs of the workforce, those needs being described primarily in terms of prospective candidates’ attributes or – to use an especially popular term these days – competencies. These recruits should be innovative, creative, adaptable critical thinkers. Who wouldn’t want such people as part of the workforce? I can only presume that business schools offer courses in accounting and what might be termed the more “practical” elements of the evolving university program while, supposedly, engendering the other qualities.
When it was my turn to speak, I chose to focus on what has been called credential creep. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, consider the following. When I was attending high school in the mid seventies, graduates could choose to forego university in favour of direct entry into the workforce without too many concerns. Going to work for a local firm or pursuing a trade from the ground up were perfectly legitimate choices. We probably all know someone who started working at _____?______ right out of high school, worked there all his/her life (maybe still there), and will retire soon if that hasn’t happened already. We all know how much that scenario has changed.
A contributing factor easily overlooked amidst the many technological and other changes over the last forty years or so is the value of that high school diploma. Back in 1975, when someone presented you with one, you could be fairly confident that it indicated the holder had certain fundamental abilities. He/she could read and write well enough, do some basic math and think for him/herself. Few would take that as a given these days.
I think it was in the 80s that universities began offering writing courses to make up for deficits in students’ work. While no one really talked about it publicly, it was clear to professors that students were leaving high school lacking certain fundamentals. Thirty plus years later, a high school diploma guarantees very little, except in the case of those students who have always excelled and whose abilities are evident no matter what system they operate in.
The new bottom line is the Bachelor of Arts and, even then, from an employment perspective, many, I suspect, would not take even an undergraduate degree as proof of competence. Students not looking to pursue professional designations at the graduate level, or academic work for its own sake, increasingly look to community colleges as the preferred path. How often do you hear people disparage the value of a B.A.?
Similarly, in business, I asked the question re the B.B.A. In light of the many demands that “interested parties” seem to be making of graduating students, how much practical value does a B.B.A. have? My concerns were echoed by one of the students in attendance who was preparing for graduate work. We certainly hear comments about the value of a “Harvard M.B.A.” I can’t recall any occasion where someone remarked on the B.B.A. someone just received received (even if it was from Harvard). Credential creep (and the escalating cost of making it even to the top of the first ladder) threatens the relevance of university courses and programs in a world that more and more associates universities with job readiness. Personally, I’m not sure those two interests intersect nearly as well as might be thought. (to be continued)