Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Why if you want to get ahead it's still a good idea to get a degree

Director of student marketing at the University of Ulster Dr Mark Durkin speaks to the Belfast Telegraph to highlight the importance of higher level education in achieving a thriving economy

Higher education is facing a lot of change. In the deferred fee-paying environment undergraduate students and their parents are increasingly looking for value for money.

Part of my new role is to help convey to existing and potential students the benefits of the higher education experience.

In today's society characterised by a yearning for immediate outcomes and a desire for effort minimisation - particularly in the young - it has become fashionable to knock the longer-term challenge of a higher education degree.

Indeed there is much talk in the media that degrees are no longer relevant to succeed in life. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Irrespective of what choice of degree a student may make there is one common universal outcome - an ability to think and problem-solve with a perspective that was not present before that education experience was undertaken.

The differentiator for graduates may no longer be having a degree - there is some truth in that given the government's policy in recent years of getting more people into the higher education system.

But this makes for a more competitive graduate market and underscores all the more the need for graduates to differentiate themselves in demonstrating how they can add real value through their contribution so as to benefit prospective employers.

Contrary to popular belief it is still the case in Northern Ireland that young people suffer from a lack of confidence in articulating what they are good at.

It is seen as uncool or boastful to sell yourself and there is a deep cultural insecurity that one might be found out. How unlike our American cousins.

At University of Ulster we are working hard to give students the confidence and skills to be better positioned to talk with authority about themselves and how they can add value as prospective professional employees. This is a key employability skill.

What becomes important in achieving all this is the culture of the university that the degree comes from, how relevant the knowledge and skills learned are and the way this knowledge and skills can be applied for the betterment of the graduate themselves and the employer.

This is where the value of a University of Ulster experience really accrues for the individual, the economy and society more generally.

Higher education is not a service that provides immediate effects or instant gratification - it is a slower consumption experience. This is also what makes the higher education experience an investment rather than a cost.

The differentiator for today's graduate becomes what that individual can do with their degree in terms of their new ability to think and their ability to evidence that thinking in a way that employers will see as being of distinctive value.

At University of Ulster we hold the view that our added value rests in our graduates being enabled to apply their knowledge and skills in more innovative and creative ways, from flexibility in problem-solving through to creativity in opportunity identification.

In essence they are being educated for professional life in today's world while their subject knowledge will inform their performance of a given role, their creative, communication and innovative problem-solving skills will add value and make them a real asset to firms as Northern Ireland becomes more reliant on a knowledge economy model.

Obviously as a university, research is a critically important part of what we do and in combination with the knowledge and employer-ready skills we inculcate in our students it is research which adds value to our overall teaching proposition.

For Northern Ireland to thrive in the global economy our graduates must have a global perspective and be addressing issues in the lecture theatre that have impacts beyond these shores.

Global knowledge and understanding gained through research but applied locally makes for real regional benefits in Northern Ireland.

In our dominantly small business economy it is speed in the identification of opportunity, flexibility in the application of knowledge and an entrepreneurial action-oriented perspective that will allow us to stand out.

Populating firms with excellent and innovative and creative graduates is what our university is all about and what our regional economy needs.

So to those that question whether a degree and overall university experience is still important I would argue - without a knowledge-based economy we will founder.

Success is all about seeing lifelong learning as an investment not a cost and as a society, employers and indeed prospective students we would forget that at our peril.

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