Jamie Rumbelow on how to fix higher education

'My biggest problem with the current university system is - a problem you’ve no doubt heard before - the sheer triviality of many degree courses'

Sam England Graduation

The news just came through the wire that our fearless leader and the founder of PostDesk,  Mr. Sam England, has just officially become Mr. Sam England, LLB (Hons). Firstly, a huge round of applause to Sam for working so hard and achieving a great result in such a challenging course. Sam has managed to build PostDesk from the ground up, achieve a 1st and have a really great time doing it. The bastard.

However, I’m not here wholly to sing his praises or lambast him for his superior intellectual and social acumen. I’m here to tackle the overriding subject of higher education. I know, I know, it’s been covered before. It’s a subject of which people have spoken ad nauseum.  You’re probably bored of journalists, authors, lecturers and all the other sub-genres collectively know as ‘writers’ whining about the value of a degree or complaining about rising tuition fees. I know for one that I certainly am.

My point today, you lovely people, is to bring forward a fact that so many people seem to be missing. It is to engage all you clever minds into debate about the true value, essence and purpose of a degree.

The word university derives from the Latin word universitas, meaning “the whole, total” or “the universe, the world”. During the Middle Ages, when universities were being officially institutionalised, a young man would attend a university to learn everything. After his studies of trivium (essential grammar, rhetoric and logic) he would go on to learn a broad spectrum of topics, encompassing the entire body of knowledge known by the university. It would be then that he would specialise and become an officially recognised doctor, lawyer or clergyman. With today’s ever increasing bank of understanding, such a feat is logistically impossible. Although I believe that we can at least entertain the concept.

My biggest problem with the current university system is – a problem you’ve no doubt heard before – the sheer triviality of many degree courses. One has to only glance down the current Undergraduate course list for Sheffield Hallam University to see some of the fantastically mediocre courses available for study. I know I’m appearing to be a bit of a jerk here, so please do hear me out.

I don’t believe that university should be about practicalities and industry. It just doesn’t work like that. Case in point; CompSci. Computer Science majors learn antiquated programming languages that knowledge of won’t help them if they want to succeed in the industry. Technology changes so rapidly that only large, monolithic organisations still use the combination of Java, COBOL and HTML3 still commonplace within academic institutions. One could get a degree in hotel management, or in ‘restauranteuring’, or even (shudder) entrepreneurism, but trust me, you’re not going to be able to manage a hotel, start a restaurant or build a business without real world experience. Without graft, sweat and most importantly, mistakes.

In order to create a better standard of fairer, well-rounded instruction, a new system for higher education should be devised. My proposal is thus:

Universities

Instead of trying to prepare students for vocational purposes, universities should be about intellectual enrichment. They should teach people to write, analyse, debate, converse and argue, persuade, critique, speculate and evaluate. I wax lyrical about the humanities because they do precisely this; they engage critical thinking skills that might not be directly applicable to a specific profession, but ultimately create a well-rounded, intellectual person. These degrees may lead on to extended vocational training for specific professions, but for the initial undergraduate degree, they should focus entirely on the humanities. Lectures, work and essays should be auxiliary to independent study, research and creation. Examinations would encapsulate a spectrum of topics, with a focus on each candidate’s specific course. They would study and grade the candidates’ intellect, reason, creativity and rhetoric. They would allow the creative, charismatic, original candidates to succeed (and be challenged) just as much as the brilliant, bright, meticulous ones.

'Mickey Mouse' degrees

Students at Westminster defend 'Mickey Mouse' degrees

Vocational Centres

What about those who aren’t intellectuals? What about the practical, kinaesthetic, hands-on sorts? For these sorts of courses, I propose a new system of higher education, one based on the wildly successful apprenticeship programmes. A qualification, geared toward a vocation, with instruction in a real-world situation. These ‘vocational centres‘ would hire professionals and industry experts to instruct practical courses. Alongside these courses, students would engage in work experience with mentors. Students would work on real-world challenges, building real-world products and working with real customers. Courses on supplementary skills, such as accounting and customer service, would be available and encouraged. Examinations on core courses would be entirely practical, and end grades would be based on the candidates’ performance in the real world.

Correctly implemented, I strongly believe that a system like the one I just described would dramatically improve the state of higher education. Degrees would become much more valuable. Vocational qualifications would become much more practical and pragmatic. Education would cater for everybody, and truly educate.

I shall leave you with the words of the brilliant Mark Twain:

I have never let schooling interfere with my education.