Posted by: Gillian | February 23, 2009

Oh dear – Masters degree needed to migrate

Education has many advantages but making a level of qualification as much a requirement for migration as a passport threatens to undermine the whole education system and the drive to self-directed learning.

Speaking yesterday on The Andrew Marr Show, Jacqui Smith, the UK Home Secretary, said that highly-skilled non-EU migrants coming to the UK would need to be able to prove their skills with a Masters degree and a previous salary level equivalent to at least GBP20k unless they were being brought in by an employer to do a job that had already been advertised to British workers. Let us assume she meant to say ‘advertised in Britain to British and other EU workers’ and just look at the implications of the rest of the proposal.

Firstly, widespread Masters qualifications are a very new phenomenon.  Within living memory, it was possible to achieve a masters degree just by attending the right university and living one extra year.  More recently, following the Bologna Process, there has been an attempt in Europe to harmonise understanding of what constitutes a Masters degree but even the most ardent Bologna supporter would have to concede that one year and two year courses, taught and untaught, applied and theoretical, requiring research and not, based on rigorous Bachelors’ degrees and not – EU Masters degrees are variable.  Extend that beyond the EU and selection for progression within global academia to a particular PhD in any country is very much an art form relying on the PhD supervisor understanding the applicant’s background as well as believing them to be suitable candidates.  The weak fall back on stereotypes that are long out of date.  I still recall with amused horror the middle-ranking US university that greeted an approach from one of Asia’s foremost universities with the considered opinion that they would have to carry out a full validation visit to see if it was up to scratch – and never thought of the reverse.  That’s not a smug Brit saying all is perfectly understood in UK academe (it isn’t!) but just one personal example from a globe-trotting career.  Still, if ‘Masters’ is a moveable standard, it would be possible to set up a United Nations academic accreditation body to whom all other accrediting authorities would have to submit so what other objections are there?

Firstly, it is ageist.  That may sound silly but as the UK testing of the young intensifies, it is often forgotten – even by MPs who never have to get an academic degree in MP-ing – that qualifications are relatively new. There were the infamous trunk-loads of papers for NVQs in the 1990s but, by and large, one got a degree or didn’t and just got on with learning and progressing in a – probably unrelated – career without any thought for ‘qualifications’.

Second, other countries had and continue to have different cultures.  To this day the French Grandes Ecoles give an advantage that no mere university can supply and the exam system for promotion is rigid.  In countries such as Romania where political events caused sea changes in what and who and how, or South Korea where opportunities burst forth, knowledge and economic value may be assured through very different routes.  James Dyson recently bemoaned the fact that the British, in their pursuit of academic measures, stamp the inventive curiosity out of children.  Does any nation really want new (or old!) academic measures as the sole arbiter of value?

Thirdly, governments are not individual-focused careers agents with all-seeing fortune-telling abilities.  It would, therefore, be calamitous if everyone signed up for the latest ‘need’ with a related Masters degrees as Sian Griffiths, the successful journalist and would-be child psychologist discovered.

Fourthly: the GBP20k.  Does this mean no British Bachelors graduate can expect 2ok ever – not even with lots of experience?  And there can be no allowance for lifelong learning and general experience – ever?  Bear in mind some of the high street adverts for shelf fillers and one-foreign-language-at GCSE call centre staff.

You can read the full Andrew Marr transcript of the Jacqui Smith interview here. Start part-way down after the expenses explanation.

Comments on this very welcome!  Am I way out of line here?


  1. This could be a pandora’s box because people will end up aiming for high level qualifications that are not really worth the paper they are written on unless, as you say, there is a central accreditation system.

    The Home Secretary is desperately trying to reduce immigration numbers but she might be cutting her nose to spite her face.

    • Reducing immigration numbers is understood. Thinking and method leave rather a lot to be desired…

  2. This would appear to be yet another example of a government minister speaking without any thought for the unintended consequences of their statements or knowledge of the actual situation.

    • Precisely!

  3. Good morning,

    This is my opinion and my opinion only. I personally do not believe you are off-base on your points. However, as you have alluded, many nations (cultures) have common denominators that everyone is measured by; this does not mean they are all equal mind you, as there are benefits of life experience, job knowledge/experience, and the moving target – common sense.

    I too remember a time when education was much more rigid and robust than what is displayed by graduates of high school and college here in America. Remembering a conversation with a math professor (from a top tier university) in an airport one day, as we both sat waiting for weather to move on so we could board our airplane that would carry us home; he made a comment that resonates within my mind constantly. As I recall the discussion, I remember being saddened by his comment and thought how horribly wrong the end product being produced. To continue, I have not accomplished any finite definitive research to accept or reject his comment; however, I have heard (from the periphery) many scholars and leaders suggesting the same. As we were speaking with one another, I asked the professor “What, in his opinion, was the caliber of math students today in relation to those he had taught 10 or 20 years ago?” His statement took me by surprise. He said, “the student today is very different from the student of yesterday; if I pulled a mid-term or final examination off the shelf that I administered 15 years ago, about 90 percent of the students today would fail the examination.” Wanting a more conclusive thought process, I continued, “and how many of the students failed the examination 15 years ago?” his reply was 10 percent.”

    Today in America, there are many professions that of years past relied on reputation and quality products or service. Today, some of those same professions are heavily laden with certifications on top of specialty certifications and the assumption is that if one does not possess such certifications, than that person not having the certification is not someone you want to seek out to provide a service or product to you. The assumption is just that, an assumption that is not always true. As we all know and can probably support with first-hand experience, that there are good and not so good service/product providers out there in the nation/world today that have and do not have the certifications that are portrayed as the “end all” to great service or products.

    Academic credentials are no different. Whether one (speaking of my experiences in the U.S.) has garnered the undergraduate or graduate degree required by the hiring employer, it does not suggest that that person has the knowledge or the capability of performing the job being sought.

    In many respects, an MBA or other graduate degrees (and certifications too), are used as discriminators (meaning everyone is equal up to this point, do you have the graduate degree or certification that we “prefer” one has) in competing for positions. Here is the point that links our respective thoughts on this particular blog: with a graduate degree or some form of certification, how can one measure those that come to us boasting such degrees and certifications from the myriad of institutions awarding them? Is the bar raised to the same level for each and every graduate degree granting institution? Does the certification granted from one institution have the same body of knowledge and outcome as another? Will I receive the same knowledge outcome enrolling in a 12 month MBA as I do from an 18 month or 24 month MBA program?

    And ultimately, how does an organization seeking employees measure the worth of said certifications or degrees?

    In America, it is better to have them while competing for jobs than not, even though the presence of such letters after your name does not necessarily mean you are the best person for the position.

    Just my two cents.


    • Thanks, Wayne. 12 or 24 months of a lot of money, study and sacrifice needs to be valued but – the big but – is the context and I am sure we agree about that.

  4. Ah, the triumph of means over ends. the late George Albee, when president of the American Psychological Association, shared with me his thoughts that you required certification when you didn’t have any valid indicator of actualy competence.

    As the drive for cash-flow has infected universities, there are more MA and MBA programs than fleas in a zoo. And most are of questionable value.

    So insisting on an MA is (1) protectionistic, (2) assumes the validity and utility of the MA, and (3) confuses certification with competence.

    I think that our new administration in DC would like come up with something like this, since they seem to be fond of solutions in search of problems.

    Or it seems to me.


    • Glad to see you Roger and many thanks for the thoughts. I quite agree!

  5. I have 3 problems with Smith’s suggestion:

    One is that she is mixing up an academic qualification with a skill set. I strongly object to this as it has the effect of devaluing both. For example you can now get a masters in nursing and I have never heard of anything quite so stupid. The effect of ‘academising’ nursing is that nurses no longer want to nurse – it’s beneath them. The definition of nursing is to nurture, to care for. It’s a valuable thing. That means getting your hands dirty; changing bloody sheets and washing patients, talking and listening, bed pans and baths as well as pills and injections. But all some nurses want to do is the medicine and auxiliaries are expected to do the rest. Suddenly nurses don’t nurse any more. There has been a cultural shift in that workplace.

    There used to be a distinction between manual and technical skills and academic study. That ended with polytechnics (that were often very good and respected technical colleges) becoming universities. The courses didn’t change at first and were just as good but over time there was an added problem with degrees becoming devalued. Wayne’s prof (above) said it all.

    The other problem is that some institutions seem to give masters degrees away with cereal packets. Well maybe not but Smith doesn’t distinguish between a degree in surfing from Plymouth and one in applied physics from Harvard. Actually a degree in surfing and beach management seems highbrow compared to Dolly Draper’s psychology degree from the Wright institute (in Berkeley but not Berkeley).


    Well no it isn’t is it? I would have thought the criteria for immigration extends to more than this rather stupid yardstick – does the immigrant have a job to go to or do all jobs need masters degrees? Stonemason? I think it right and proper that jobs are advertised to British workers but there comes the difficult situation where people would rather have polish builders and plumbers that do the job on time and don’t rip people off whilst sucking their teeth and saying ‘no mate, the estimate was just that, an estimate and it’s money up front or we can’t finish the job’. And can Jacqui Smith say no anyway? Can the government set criteria? I thought we were in Europe so Smith can do very little really. Apart from fiddle her expenses.

    • Hi, Philipa. I think you are absolutely right about the confusion of academic qualifications with skill sets. We need thinkers – but we certainly need people with practical, applied skills. As for what an academic qualification actually means, well: I never cease to be amazed at the range of learning outcomes required across different institutions and countries for the ‘same’ set of letters.

  6. In Canada we use a points system that takes into account a wide variety of factors and that does not build in a make-or-break qualification like a Masters or a certain income level.

    Personally, I think that in this era of free commerce and free trade, we should have freedom of mobility.

    • Hi Stephen. No more ‘Are you here on business or pleasure’ decisions? That would be wonderful. I sometimes think it would be simpler for global trade if immigration officers learned a lesson from the library at Oxford University where you have to read out a statement that you will not damage or burn the books. Standing at the border saying, “I shall not be a terrorist and I shall contribute to the economy” is probably as much use as requiring a ‘Masters’ 🙂

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