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Author Topic: What's wrong with University education today?  (Read 5372 times)

Offline graham.d

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What's wrong with University education today?
« on: 16/02/2011 14:06:17 »
This could be a long rant from me so I will try to be succinct. I am keen to hear views on this controversial topic.

Over the past 30 years or so it seems that the quality level of those with degrees has decreased. At one time it was a sufficient recommendation for employment (plus a superficial interview) that someone had a degree and especially so if it was 1st or a 2.1. In some cases it was even not so important what the subject was, except for specific technical positions which required the specific knowledge acquired in taking the course. This is definititely not the case any more except for some specific courses at certain Universities, which you have to know about, or more generally, at Oxford or Cambridge. This is for the UK of course and it would be interesting to hear views from people elsewhere. I apologise for not being specific about some Universities that are good in certain areas (like London Imperial with Physics for example), but the general picture is valid I think. I don't necessarily think that the standards of the courses are worse and, in physics the syllabi seem fairly comprehensive. It seems that there is just more pressure to get more students to pass, so the bar has been lowered hugely.

I think the evidence that would support this is:
1. More people attend university and the standards have necessarily dropped to accommodate this.
2. The finances for the universities are heavily supported by paying students from overseas who, given that they pay a substantial amount, expect to get a degree at the end. It is bad marketing if they don't.
3. Examinations are often carried out over a period of time on specific topics which can be learnt for the exam then forgotten.
4. Some Universities allow failed papers (although not in the Finals as far as I know) to be retaken by students at home and handed in later. Southampton 2nd year Physics for example. This could be acceptable in special circumstances but it seems commonplace.
5. I have found that A-level grades are a better representation of ability than degree (with exceptions previously noted). I have interviewed people whose knowledge in all areas was very poor but who, amazingly, had a good degree.
6. MSc courses are even more variable. There are some Universities who award an MSc for just attending!

Now, this is not to say that it isn't great that more people have the opportunity to go to university. Also, there was not any golden age where people were perfectly selected to attend a university. People attain different abilities at different times in their lives so there were, and are, many people who excel at their jobs or even at academic work, who did not get opportunity to go to university. Also there are people who fail at university who can also blossom later. However, it seems to me that we have degraded the ability of the degree to be any sort of indicator to an employer. It is all down to the interview now, and that is not a good measure given the time pressure and the difficulty in assessment in such a short time.


 

Offline imatfaal

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What's wrong with University education today?
« Reply #1 on: 16/02/2011 16:44:27 »
We risk sounding like grumpy old men but I think I would tend to agree...

Regarding the Masters point (6) - I will dig out a reference/name but in the mid 60s a Nobel prize winning economist Michael Spence predicted this.  It all had to do with varying "pain of work" opportunity cost of further/higher education and how this varies with intellect and course difficulty - easy courses stop being a shorthand method for employers to find the best candidates, the best candidates realise this and take extra/more advanced courses in order ....  I heard it explained in one of Ben Polak's lectures on Game Theory number 23 available on the web. 

A further point on master's degrees - in Law many degrees are taken as second degrees (there is a long standing concept of the postgraduate 2-year  / standard 3-year LLB).  But under recent legislation (groan) the Law Schools struggle to get funding for second bachelor level degrees (even though it is the traditional approach) - so the Law Schools switch the degrees to LLM, and the government is happier to fund and they get to charge the students higher fees.  It's all a bit annoying when one has a proper old-fashioned LLB and LLM   [:-'(]
« Last Edit: 16/02/2011 16:51:01 by imatfaal »
 

Offline Geezer

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« Reply #2 on: 17/02/2011 07:20:51 »
What's wrong with being a grumpy old man???? There's damn few of us left!  :D

My experience is really confined to electronic engineering and computer science. I agree with Graham's points, but I also can't help wondering if it's partly to do with the general acceleration of scientific discovery and technological progress. To remain competitive, industries really have to be on the cutting edge, and I wonder how the universities are able to keep up.

Still, if they are popping out grads who don't have a decent grasp on the basics, that's a big problem. Come to think of it, I was always amazed by the number of new EE's I interviewed who didn't have the foggiest clue how to use a transistor.
 

Offline Variola

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« Reply #3 on: 17/02/2011 09:42:38 »
Quote
think the evidence that would support this is:
1. More people attend university and the standards have necessarily dropped to accommodate this.   

To a certain extent possibly yes, but I view it more as the invention of different degrees, so people have more opportunity to study something they may be good at or have an interest in, but may not lead directly to a job.

Quote
2. The finances for the universities are heavily supported by paying students from overseas who, given that they pay a substantial amount, expect to get a degree at the end. It is bad marketing if they don't. 

Absolutely. It is easier ( at my university) to get a grant, bursary, funding etc to do a degree or in particular a Msc or Dphil, if you are a non-EU national, because of the availability of funding from abroad.

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  3. Examinations are often carried out over a period of time on specific topics which can be learnt for the exam then forgotten.

Agreed. But given the amount of knowledge required to pass a degree, much of it is on a building blocks basis, which makes sense. Shame there is no other way as I would be a whiz at my first year exams now!

Quote
4. Some Universities allow failed papers (although not in the Finals as far as I know) to be retaken by students at home and handed in later. Southampton 2nd year Physics for example. This could be acceptable in special circumstances but it seems commonplace.   

They do? I want to go there!!! I am guessing that these papers are already seen papers anyway, not sure how it works with physics but I know some English essay exams are written at home over the course of a week, or 4 days or something. If that paper is a fail it makes no difference if they do it again at home. To the best of my knowledge unseen exams are repeated again in the Sept after the exams, usually with a capped mark, or uncapped if there are special circumstances.

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. I have found that A-level grades are a better representation of ability than degree (with exceptions previously noted). I have interviewed people whose knowledge in all areas was very poor but who, amazingly, had a good degree.   

That doesn't surprise me. But does that say more about the persons personality and curious nature than of academic achievement?

Quote
6. MSc courses are even more variable. There are some Universities who award an MSc for just attending!
 

Oh gawd yes! They seem to be a law unto themselves. We have masters students in the lab I have been working in, you would never think they have a degree already, they haven't got a clue about some of the basic principles. It felt odd teaching someone who techinically was better qualified than myself in the same field.  [:-[]

Quote
Now, this is not to say that it isn't great that more people have the opportunity to go to university. Also, there was not any golden age where people were perfectly selected to attend a university. People attain different abilities at different times in their lives so there were, and are, many people who excel at their jobs or even at academic work, who did not get opportunity to go to university. Also there are people who fail at university who can also blossom later. However, it seems to me that we have degraded the ability of the degree to be any sort of indicator to an employer. It is all down to the interview now, and that is not a good measure given the time pressure and the difficulty in assessment in such a short time. 


I agree. However my gripe is the dilution of degree status, as in terms of employment indicator by the introduction of lots of non-job degrees, and degrees in just about anything. I admire anyone who wants to go to university to expand their knowledge, no matter what it is in. However when those degrees do not lead directly into related jobs, it dilutes down the value of a degree. I maybe biased as I am a science UG, and I get heartily fed up  of the media portrayal of degree students all end up in HR or working in Tesco!
I have long said there needs to be a reclassification of degrees according to their economic usefulness, with the most useful professions being more heavily funded in terms of teaching grants etc.



As for grumpy old men.... men make me feel old and grumpy... so ner!!!  :P
« Last Edit: 17/02/2011 09:45:43 by Variola »
 

Offline BenV

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« Reply #4 on: 17/02/2011 10:21:47 »
Quote
I agree. However my gripe is the dilution of degree status, as in terms of employment indicator by the introduction of lots of non-job degrees, and degrees in just about anything. I admire anyone who wants to go to university to expand their knowledge, no matter what it is in. However when those degrees do not lead directly into related jobs, it dilutes down the value of a degree. I maybe biased as I am a science UG, and I get heartily fed up  of the media portrayal of degree students all end up in HR or working in Tesco!
I have long said there needs to be a reclassification of degrees according to their economic usefulness, with the most useful professions being more heavily funded in terms of teaching grants etc.

I would argue the opposite - getting a degree should be divorced from the idea of getting a job.  This would shift the balance of people doing degrees that they feel will land them in employment (and then being depressed when they don't) and more on to getting a degree as part of personal improvement.

I also suspect that undergrad degrees are actually useless for getting a skilled job anyway (you don't really learn enough lab skills to go straight into research, for example), so should be more about the ability to learn, to research, to comprehend and communicate your understanding.  It shouldn't matter if this is done as part of a degree in chemistry, history, media studies, classics, genetics...

(Slightly off topic...) I get frustrated by people discounting media studies.  Understanding how facts and arguments are presented through the media, and the impact that media has on people, is vitally important.  It should guard you against media bias and political spin, and as such make you better able to understand the world we live in.
 

Offline Variola

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« Reply #5 on: 17/02/2011 12:15:27 »
Quote
  would argue the opposite - getting a degree should be divorced from the idea of getting a job.  This would shift the balance of people doing degrees that they feel will land them in employment (and then being depressed when they don't) and more on to getting a degree as part of personal improvement.
 

Indeed, but Graham's post did mention the employment side several times, hence my reply was on that.

Quote
I also suspect that undergrad degrees are actually useless for getting a skilled job anyway (you don't really learn enough lab skills to go straight into research, for example), so should be more about the ability to learn, to research, to comprehend and communicate your understanding.  It shouldn't matter if this is done as part of a degree in chemistry, history, media studies, classics, genetics...

That is why in life sci, companies like GSK, Novartis etc run graduate recruitment programmes so you learn while you research. A quarter of my final year is based on an independent research project, you learn more lab skills there than in the rest of the degree.
Regarding the ability to comprehend and communicate, that should be a part of any degree but it does matter when it comes to employment and specific knowledge needed. It still runs that some degree subjects are more employable than others, but it is no guarantee of a job.


Quote
(Slightly off topic...) I get frustrated by people discounting media studies.  Understanding how facts and arguments are presented through the media, and the impact that media has on people, is vitally important.  It should guard you against media bias and political spin, and as such make you better able to understand the world we live in.   

Yup. I think it should be requirement of any degree to study a short course in how to analyse and interpret the media, perhaps we would not get do much policy based on knee-jerk public reaction.



 

Offline graham.d

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« Reply #6 on: 17/02/2011 13:59:17 »
Some good comments. Although my initial gripe is that a good degree is now of little value in assessing the ability of a job candidate, I do not subscribe to the idea that doing a degree should be necessarily aimed at a particular profession. Providing the degree is of sufficient academic standard it is up to the employer to decide whether the qualities needed for the degree are what he needs in a prospective employee. Many years ago my wife became a computer programmer and then a systems analyst based on a good degree in history. I see nothing wrong in that. I think it is good that there are degrees available in subjects that are of no obvious economic or practical value. If such people wish to continue their work (usually with low pay) or if they wish to pursue a career elsewhere, that's fine. If the degree is worth its salt, as it used to be, then there are plenty of jobs for people bright enough to do such work to a good standard.

I would be happy to employ someone with a good degree in any appropriate subject, even media studies, if the course was good and it demanded that the student actually work and learn the stuff to a good standard. In many cases the courses are good but there is little differentiation in exam results between the best and the worst students. It is a shame for those that are good. 
 

Offline Bored chemist

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« Reply #7 on: 17/02/2011 19:08:04 »
A while ago the government of the day realised the dole queues were getting longer. They wanted to hide this fact (because they didn't want to admit to it, but they didn't want to do anything about it).
So they said they wanted 50% of school leavers to go to university.
Of course, in the real world, a university education isn't really suitable for 50% of the population but the government said they would pay the fees so the Universities said OK.
Now the dole queues are a little shorter than they would be, but the Universities are full of people studying "Media studies" and there are not many jobs for which that's a helpful qualification. (even jobs in the media don't think much of it). Of course, the government was still paying out for all the fees- so they decided to stop doing that and introduce "loans". in this way they helped their friends at the banks too.

As far as I can tell, that's how we got here.
 

Offline Don_1

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What's wrong with University education today?
« Reply #8 on: 23/02/2011 13:53:57 »
Thier iz nuffing rong wiv universettees 2day' az me degre phrom da universettee ov souf ingglend kwite whel demonstraights.
 

Offline Geezer

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What's wrong with University education today?
« Reply #9 on: 24/02/2011 00:50:56 »
I blame VAT! It's all upside down.

The tax should be based on Lack of Value. So, if you are in a job that basically adds no value (banking might be a good example) you get taxed at a minimum rate of 66.6%. Many government positions would be taxed at even higher rates.
 

Offline Bill.D.Katt.

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What's wrong with University education today?
« Reply #10 on: 27/02/2011 18:58:06 »
As a college student in the U.S. I would say that if degrees are losing their value, it is not science related degrees. Science graduates have been decreasing in numbers relative to the overall rise in the number of college attendees. From personall experience I would say that this is because science and math courses regularly beat the sh*t out of us, and only the ones who really love it stay in. In comparison a good grade is comparatively easily pulled off in art, literature or general studies classes. Several of my friends have dropped their science major because they were tired of getting 40% on tests and having that curved to a 3.5 gpa.
 

Offline Geezer

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« Reply #11 on: 27/02/2011 19:59:23 »
Bill, I think you are quite right. I think it is also sad that many university engineering courses are so heavily focused on math and science that they simply drive a lot of students out of the programs. I have a suspicion that tends to happen because the lecturers are academic specialits in their field rather than engineers.

Some of the best engineers I have known didn't have a degree in engineering. I've also known a lot of engineers with degrees in engineering who knew a lot of theory, were highly critical of their colleagues, but could not engineer their way out of a paper bag  ;D
 

Offline graham.d

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« Reply #12 on: 27/02/2011 21:56:00 »
I also agree with Bill and this is another problem. Along with the expanding need to have more people with degree education is the effective dissuasion of people from taking the hard options because they see their friends getting apparently equivalent degrees without as much work. This extra competition is one of the reasons that the hard science and math courses have been made easier. But getting a degree is not supposed to be easy; it is supposed to represent a significant challenge that is worthwhile. I don't blame kids from taking an easier option.

Geezer, whilst I agree with your statement about knowing good engineers who have not had a degree course and also people with good degrees who are hopeless practically, this is not the norm but the exception. If it were not so it would tend to make the idea of doing an engineering degree worthless. Certainly in microelectronics, people with a degree are not practically productive in design for one to two years. It also can take nearly this long to get familiar with some of the CAD tools. It is less of an investment gamble though, if the degree was of the value it once was, in at least suggesting that the person was capable of getting there eventually.

The term "engineer" is devalued in the UK though this is not the case in (say) Germany and this is reflected in the standards required to be able to award this title. Geezer, I suspect also your experience results from your age (and mine) where we often encountered practical engineers with wartime experience but who had not had the opportunities of later generations. I learnt much from such people.
 

Offline Geezer

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« Reply #13 on: 27/02/2011 22:56:53 »
Graham,

I agree. My comments were a bit tongue in cheek, although I believe there is an important point there. Obviously, engineering has a lot more to do with the application of a broad range sciences than scientific research in a particular field. But it also requires a large amount of inventiveness, passion, and pushing the limits of the "accepted wisdom". When you think about it, that's a fairly interesting, and possibly unusual, set of skills.

My impression is that there is insufficient emphasis placed on the latter, so many undergrads get kicked out of engineering courses because they get turned off by too much math and science that is  taught in an abstract manner. No doubt the deans think this is an effective screening method, but I think, because they are more likely to be academics than engineers, they are missing an important point.
 

Offline graham.d

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« Reply #14 on: 28/02/2011 09:14:22 »
You may be right in that some engineering does not require the same degree of maths and science as others. Certainly, design of logic to a certain level is more akin to computer science than electronic engineering but then these people would never understand and design a high quality Delta-Sigma ADC as this is quite hard without quite a bit of maths and some understanding of the physics. This is not belittling the design of large logic systems either; this is every bit as difficult but requires a different skill-set. Perhaps there needs to be more specialisation.

You are certainly right that it is often the case that maths for engineers (and, I can attest, also for physicists) is often taught in an abstract way without relation to its application. I remember this from my day! Even though I liked maths, it was often a struggle to see its relevence and it made it hard (at least for me) to motivate myself to learn it. I know someone who has recently finished a PhD in a specialised area of quantum physics and had to learn group theory. It became easier when it was explained why this was essential and it was put into context; most of the text books treat it completely abstractly and that does not suit everyone.
 

Offline hendrag

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« Reply #15 on: 01/03/2011 00:37:40 »
Ditto with Bill.
In general there are less students taking the science degree in the US university in the past few years. In Australia though, I think it is the opposite trend. Precisely what Graham described with the general influx of overseas students and lowering the entry grades...
 

Offline Geezer

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« Reply #16 on: 01/03/2011 02:23:15 »
Graham,

I'm not suggesting the Math and Science requirements should be diluted. Engineers need to have that knowledge. I'd just like to see a bit more emphasis on the creative aspects of engineering earlier in the courses.

That might accomplish two things.

1. It would help to maintain the enthusiasm of the more creative, and possibly less academic, students who find it simpler to learn in the context of application.

2. It would give the readers an opportunity to evaluate a different dimension of students capabilities which might be just as important as academic prowess.

It's quite possible that is already happening. My point of view is more than slightly out of date!
 

Offline graham.d

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« Reply #17 on: 01/03/2011 08:52:02 »
Geezer, the "creative" side is not especially encouraged except in one or two rare cases. I don't think it is easy to see how to do it except by immersion in a real design, which maybe one reason. I know of a couple of places where post grads, under the tutelage of a professor, act as a relatively low cost design consultancy. You only get what you pay for of course, but it can work to some extent and it really helps the students a lot. The big CAD companies offer good deals to universities (almost free compared to what is the normal cost) on the proviso that they are not used commercially. Unfortunately this means that no British university offers this sort of deal, at least not one that is of any use, because they all are scrupulously honest. This is not true in some other countries though.
 

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What's wrong with University education today?
« Reply #17 on: 01/03/2011 08:52:02 »

 

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