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Malachi O'Doherty

Do universities really prepare students for jobs... or just life in general?

Malachi O'Doherty


As the prospect of higher fees is raised, Malachi O'Doherty wonders what is the value of most third level education and is it worth getting into debt for

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I have often in life felt a sting of regret that I did not get a university degree. When I was of an age to apply myself and go to university I was more inclined to get out into the world. (Chris Radburn/PA)

I have often in life felt a sting of regret that I did not get a university degree. When I was of an age to apply myself and go to university I was more inclined to get out into the world. (Chris Radburn/PA)

PA Archive/PA Images

I have often in life felt a sting of regret that I did not get a university degree. When I was of an age to apply myself and go to university I was more inclined to get out into the world. (Chris Radburn/PA)

I have often in life felt a sting of regret that I did not get a university degree. When I was of an age to apply myself and go to university I was more inclined to get out into the world. I had this daft idea that I would be a writer. And to be a writer I would have to have a CV like Steinbeck's, work on farms and fairgrounds, travel the world and do a bit of journalism.

But there were times when I sat with the Sits Vac page in hand staring at a job ad and thinking that I could do that and enjoy it and make four times as much money as I did then.

And then there would be those essential criteria and one of them would be a good degree.

In one of my occasional panics about the insecurity of self-employment I applied for a job as the 'communications officer' for a charity. A particular degree was a requirement but by then I had a masters degree and a PhD, had worked as a journalist for decades, published several books and had helped make and front about a dozen TV documentaries. I thought, naively, that this charity might see me as an asset.

I didn't even get an interview.

Worse, I didn't even get a letter saying I wasn't to be interviewed.

I simply failed at the first shortlisting.

I laugh about it now but I don't see how it makes sense to have a hurdle for job applications that rules out competent candidates.

Actually they may have thought that if Malachi O'Doherty couldn't apply himself to getting a wee degree he was hardly going to stick around in the job anyway and that would have been about right.

But my point is this, most degrees do not prove very much about the person holding them. Most people getting degrees take jobs with little or no relation to the subject they studied.

And all of them, five years after taking a degree, will be evaluated more by the experience they have gained than by that bit of paper.

In the world of self-employment, where I worked, you are never asked for qualifications. All that matters is that you can do the work that is asked of you and deliver it on time. No editor or producer or publisher has ever asked me what qualifications I have to be a journalist, filmmaker or writer.

I was sent out to interview professors and politicians on the assumption that I could handle myself. And when I didn't know something I asked.

Doing a degree only makes sense if it is valuable in its own terms. Employers should stop asking for them unless they represent an essential skill set or knowledge base for the job. And if they did stop asking for them people might stop doing them and spend their time and money more productively.

The insurance company that takes one candidate because of a degree in, say media studies or anthropology, over someone who hasn't got a degree but ran a blog or travelled in Nepal, is not applying a rational measure of aptitude.

It is not a measure that I would apply if I was an employer.

This isn't to say young people shouldn't go to university, but they should only go with some sense of the real value that they will get from the experience.

And if they are going to get into debt to do it then they should evaluate the chance with care.

The experience they will gain includes social connections and the chance to interact with intelligent people, join clubs and get advice on reading. But you can get that without going to university. You can educate yourself on the internet now.

And university gives students the illusion that learning is something that is institutional and apart from real life whereas learning should just be integrated into your life and continue throughout.

The job you aspire to at 18 may not exist when you are 25 so you have to go on learning, whatever path you take.

Arlene Foster says we should now look again at the idea of raising university fees.

Queen's University will be delighted to hear that. It is a business which wants to make money.

But people are now going to have to ask themselves what value they are going to get for the money they spend on a university education. Is it going to teach them more than they could learn through travel and study on the internet?

I can think of a lot better ways to spend £27,000 on self-improvement than going to Queen's. The only problem is that an employer might not recognise those achievements because they won't be laid out on a nice scroll signed by a vice chancellor.

Employers themselves have to ask if they are applying the best measure of a candidate's value when they ask for a degree that often doesn't relate to the job anyway.

And universities should be honest about what they are really there for.

Queen's doesn't see itself as providing skills. A Russell Group university prioritises research. If you don't want to be a researcher then why would you go there?

Your lecturer has an awful lot more work to do than teaching.

This work includes fundraising for research and tons of administration as well. The researchers who attract money to the university will at times delegate their teaching to their PhD students, who need a little extra money.

The undergraduate student is a low priority in that system.

If you want to be an academic go to university.

If you don't then maybe go anyway and meet some interesting people and have a good time and you can tick a box on an application form for a job.

But if you have to pay big money, then consider yourself conned if your money isn't buying you the best and most appropriate type of personal advancement for you.

So Arlene, if you are thinking of requiring young people here to get into debt for further education think about offering them better value for money.

If some of them would rather go round Africa on a bicycle or learn Sanskrit in a Hindu Monastery, then let them do that instead.

Or force the universities to provide practical training in marketable skills, from plumbing (when are we not going to need plumbers?) to programming. Or help people just to learn the life skills they will need for a world that is changing.

University has to have more purpose to it if people are to pay more money for it.

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