“The biggest fans of standardizing education are those who look at our children and see only future employees.” So says Alfie Kohn in The New York Times. What a depressing thought, not just for our children but for social prosperity and the envisaged knowledge economies. Ian Brinkley of the Work Foundation describes the knowledge economy as one that requires, “.. R&D, design, brand equity, human and organisational capital.” In the US there is a celebratory list of ‘most innovative cities‘ that contribute to the knowledge economy. It has long been accepted managerial wisdom that top-class innovation, design and organisational capital are not best developed by having teams of workers who all think, work and behave alike. There needs to be some grit in the system, something or someone that provides the unexpected and so moves things in a new direction. (Think of the Google engineers and their “20 per cent time” where they work on projects of interest to them .) As the cries about grade inflation in higher education suggest, employers in knowledge economies are increasingly looking for graduates that are not turned out of a highly standardised educational sausage factory. A UK upper second on its own will not guarantee a job (if it ever did). Much less will it guarantee a job for life. The higher education market, however, has been changing for some decades and properly accredited degrees that allow individuality and varied learning pathways do exist.
Standard-age (18-25) students have a wider range of options than many realise. There is no need, for example, to stay in one’s own country to take a degree. Why not explore scholarships or internships with education as part of the deal (common in accountancy and engineering, for example)? Students tempted by the US can look at co-op programs where, after suitable financial guarantees have been signed, they can work and study. Or highly disciplined and motivated people can take degrees online (with or without the fun of additional face-to-face workshops) while they also work. Online degrees, of course, can come from any country provided they are properly accredited.
Over the age of 25, the options become even wider because there is often the chance to take your work and life experience and previous qualifications (in or out of university) and use them as academic currency in finding a course that meets what you need rather than what is in a pre-determined schedule. Despite the European Bologna agreement and credit transfer agencies worldwide, you will still have considerable difficulty if you want to take one course at each of ten universities and get a degree (the reasons for that being too numerous for this blog) but you can approach most universities and effectively say, “This is what I have got, this is why I want to study, what can you suggest?” The APEL process (accreditation of prior experience and learning) is rarely free and can be very expensive but it may help you achieve your goal more quickly than you would otherwise. Most degrees include some kind of elective element and your experience may (within limits) count for this so end up with a degree that is, in effect, tailored to what you want to study. The most important point to bear in mind, however, is that if you want a degree for professional-body recognition, you need to check that your personalised route still meets their requirements. A university may be very happy to give you a degree with a similar (or even same) title but if you miss the course in statistics (or whatever) your professional body may not accept it and getting many professional bodies to accept the slightly different degree plus a ‘top-up’ of the missing course can be complicated.
The AP(E)L route also works in distance/online education so if you see a degree and think ‘oh, not marketing again!!’, it is worth asking if your prior learning will count. You must do this before you enrol. At some univeristies you can also collect all your prior experience and learning and submit it as a reflective portfolio of evidence for academic credit. This route is not a simple matter of bundling your life into a cardboard box and shipping it to the assessor but is well worth the effort for those with experience, the ability to write clearly and the ability to analyse their work against a given set of criteria. Excelsior College is one place where this is possible.
If you consider you really ought to have a doctorate (PhD) but do not have the standard entry qualification of a Masters in the area, why not look at an applied doctorate? These have various titles (e.g. DM, Doctor of Management, or EdD, Doctor of Education) and many top-flight universities now offer these as they see the value in working with innovators in industry. Other more regional universities offer these degrees to strengthen local university-industry links at all levels. Be realistic in what you seek and expect the university to be as demanding as your work.
If anyone wants to write in with success stories or suggest universities that are friendly to individualised, purposive study, please do.