A degree is now a rite of passage
University qualifications have become the minimum requirement
for getting a job. Welcome to the credentialist academy.
It appears that our product is losing its value. The market no
longer regards the university degree as an unambiguously sound investment.
Contrary to previous forecasts, UK graduates can, over their lifetime,
expect to earn £150,000 more than those with only A levels.
According to the findings of the British Labour Survey, that's about
£250,000 less than the previous estimates. Arts degrees are
a particularly devalued commodity. Over a lifetime, a male arts
graduate will earn a mere £22,458 more than if he had not
gone to university. Just think about it: three years of paying fees
and three years of lost wages represent a tidy sum. The poor fellow
with an arts degree would have been better off working for a year
and going on a two-year holiday before returning to the labour market.
Statistics about the anticipated lifetime earnings of graduates
tell us little more than the fact that as more people go to university,
the economic value of a degree declines. They say nothing about
the social and cultural value of a degree.
Credentialism - the expansion of paper qualifications - devalues
university degrees. But credentialism is also part of a process
whereby people's lives and identities are redefined in accordance
with new cultural norms. The more that university is experienced
as an expansion of schooling, the more it loses its status as a
distinct experience that endows the possessor of a degree with special
status. In this sense, a degree ceases to be a tool for accessing
cultural capital - or at least a significant amount of cultural
But the fact that it no longer constitutes a site where a distinct
status can be gained does not mean the university has ceased to
have a social significance. Indeed, it can be argued that it has
become even more important in the lives of young people. Once possession
of a degree comes to be taken for granted, it is difficult to do
without one. It may not represent any unique or special qualities,
but it signals that the degree holder has succeeded in embarking
on the life course expected of normal young people. In a sense,
it normalises the graduate and tells the world that the individual
has been able to meet a modicum of expectations for at least three
This is where the reorientation of universities towards providing
key skills and learning outcomes is so important. Where else but
in a university can young people learn to manage their timetable,
decode their teachers' lecture notes and grasp the basics of how
to use a PC? Potential employers can also expect graduates to possess
the skill of time management. Someone with a good 2:1 - even in
the arts - is likely to know how to use an alarm clock. After a
graduate has spent three years attending lectures and seminars,
employers can feel reassured that he or she is likely to come to
work on a regular basis. The university's mission of providing key
skills ensures that graduates leave with a modicum of literacy and
Credentialism, which incidentally erodes the distinction between
school and university, has the perverse effect of elevating the
importance of a degree. It may not bring loads of extra money, but
it provides clear evidence that you are able to meet normal expectations.
As for institutions of higher education? They are facing the problem
of trying to discover whether the credentialist imperative leaves
any space for academic life.
published in the Times Higher Education Supplement,
17 June 2005