Posted by: Gillian | May 23, 2012

Doing, thinking and Qualifications respect

What are universities for and are they worth your money? The UK’s Radio4 recently discussed this but a) it was on late and b) I’m not sure it got to the root of the issue.  Carl Lygo rightly pointed out that the idea that universities are about ‘young people’ is, in his words, ‘just wrong’.  In my view, assorted open universities, military grants and online courses would not exist if that were the case. However, universities do have something of an identity crisis and those trying to figure out whether or not it is worth going are often keenly aware of this. Should universities turn out thinkers who just possibly ‘may’ turn out to be life-changing people like the first university quantum physicists or should they be qualifications factories that provide do-ers with badges?  Your choice because there are both varieties out there *but* looking at why this choice exists and thinking through the options, there are ways to get the best of all worlds.

In the bad old days of my early career, there were competenc(i)es complete with day long seminars arguing about the use of the (i) and a battle royal about proving one could do something once or repeatedly or never – but, in the ‘never’ case one could describe how to do it at length and with footnotes.  In the UK, this argument centred around NVQs (national vocational qualifications). Unfortunately, this argument erupted about the time that online learning started to become widely available. It was, and still is, far easier to give yes/no answers on a computer than it it is to assess shades of doubt or possibility or prediction. Some people still think online courses are stuck in this yes/no era that – by definition – means the knowledge is already public and you are just meeting the standard of what others have already done. This is sad and unnecessary but does still exist.

The even older argument is that degrees are about knowledge, not doing. I once asked a globally renowned university what they wanted their MBAs to be able to do to distinguish them from the rest. A bemused head thought a bit and then said: “Think!” Given the number of MBAs hitting the market each year, an MBA who can only think risks creating organisations of chocolate teapots. Or, to broaden and update the idea, undergraduate courses that rely on reflective portfolios might need a reality check.

People talk about the difference between discipline and subject knowledge. (Academics: see Jan Parker’s paper.) In reality, this means the difference between mixing with other people trying to be ‘the best’ and take things forward and being one of a crowd trying to know a set amount of ‘things’ already decided.

Communities of practice and connective knowledge are ideas/terms that sound new – but probably are truly ancient – but they do not necessarily give degrees and certificates. Life being what it is, people need certificates because HR departments put them on their checklists and battling the system is rarely going to pay the bills.

So: how can one be a thinking, working adult and not only get the bits of paper but also be respected in education/academic terms? It is do-able and I’m not into advertising.  As broad principles:

  • Avoid anything with purely online assessments (online essays are different)
  • Look for  assessment set by ‘sessions’ or ‘registration groups’
  • Require discussion groups
  • Require tutor/facilitator/supervisor/group contact (the more the better)
  • Require ID at time of assessment.  That’s as valid on-campus as online.  That may sound silly but you need to know that you and all your peers are real people sitting real tests.




  1. Gillian…well said!

  2. Very thought-provoking. If I had to say what a university is in one word it would be “curiosity”. It sums up to me everything that someone going to university – at whatever age – should be there for; a sense of curiosity, of wanting to know more about something (or everything).

  3. Universities are changing very quickly. We should be aware of the new model that will be created after the scolarships problems

    • Hi Adrián. I agree with you: universities are changing. I shall write about UNISO and some other developments later today or tomorrow. Keep in touch!

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