Posted by: Gillian | August 4, 2010

University education – product or commodity?

Is a graduate a ‘product’ of a university? Are degrees commodities like supermarket deli tubs that just need to be filled up,weighed and paid for? Those questions tend to provoke strong reactions and help determine the type of university education people want.

Philip Delves Broughton’s entertaining book What they teach you at Harvard Business School, contains the view that Harvard sees students as products.  So, to an extent, they are if seen from the institution’s perspective.  Whether it is Harvard or Hicksville Tech, I know of no educational establishment that has not said “Our graduates are….” and gone on to describe the type of person they are sending out into the workplace or on to another establishment.  That description can – and, in my view, should – inform everything the institution does: its marketing, recruitment, links with industry, course design, assessment methodology, accreditation, staff training, community engagement.  That consistency becomes a clear brand that attracts appropriate staff, students and employers.  That is not, however, the same as treating students as ingredients to be turned into identical sausages.  Yes, students may share characteristics such as passing a particular entrance exam or seeking a certain type of job but they arrive as individuals with different backgrounds, different knowledge maps, different brains.  Universally, teachers who recognise this and develop individuals rather than deliver courses to classes are those who are admired as educators.  Some are even highly skilled at educating individuals so they start to resemble other individuals in the class; but that is not the same as treating the student as a product, incapable of free will.

The opposite extreme is to view universities as places that dispense standard chunks of knowledge that students have to deliver in a test and can then forget once the degree has been awarded and suitably prestigious employment found. Under such a scheme, students can ‘test out’ i.e. just sit the exams.   Integration of knowledge may be included if the program and the assessments are carefully structured but creativity and development of new knowledge is not required.  Why bother with creativity if the worth of the degree is in proving standard knowledge has been encountered? In such an institution, the more rigid the course delivery system, the more standardized the classes, the more effective it is.  The student will actively seek such efficiency – as quick a route as possible to proving the minimum amount of knowledge required.

It’s worth noting that at both extremes, conformity is required but personal development and intellectual curiosity are not.  This suggests that education and science in their widest meanings are not valued but is that really true?  The vast numbers of people involved in all forms of discretionary lifelong learning, the popularity of websites for educators seeking to develop holistic learning environments and the frequent demands of employers to be able to recruit  have ‘more’ than a degree all testify to the fact that a university education should be neither product nor commodity but something more.

For the prospective degree graduate, there are some clear choices to be made.  If social conformity is essential for where you wish to be, then the product approach may be helpful.  Just do not do it if you are natural anarchist – or have the business brain to turn creativity to advantage as Broughton has done.  If you have lots of experience and just missed out on the degree so now professional memberships or promotion are closed to you, testing out might be just what you need.  The degree will do what it says on the lid.  If you are one of the many that fall between these two extremes, on the one hand your choice of university is huge but on the other you are open to offers from places that do not have that complete systemic awareness of their brand, where testing and personal development get into conflict.  For the student, seeing university degrees as commodities does have some advantages – but there’s no requirement to take that view to extremes. You can just stand back and ask if a university will deliver an education personalised to the level that you would like.

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