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Opinion: Are we devaluing degrees?

Our exploding education sector is a good thing in many ways – but it also has significant drawbacks.

Gary Keogh

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago, a degree was a ‘big deal’. Fifteen years ago, a master’s degree was a ‘big deal’. In 15 years’ time, will having a PhD be the norm?

Over the last number of years, there has been an exponential rate of inflation in educational qualifications. The guiding principles of economics (competition, supply and demand, etc) have permeated our education system leading to an unsustainable increase in the level of qualifications among people in Ireland. For some, this is seen as a positive development: surely it is a great thing that so many young people are being educated, going on to university to get degrees and master’s?

But the positive rhetoric depicting an overall increase in the level of education among Irish people is presented uncritically without anyone stopping to consider the negative effects this is having socially. Don’t get me wrong, I have spent my entire life in education, as a student, teacher, and university lecturer. I will defend the value of education with my very last breath: I have seen its transformative, empowering, and socially progressive side. Yet there are deeply troubling facets of our exploding education sector.

A devaluing of education

One noticeably negative issue with drastic increases in the number of people pursuing higher education is, like monetary inflation, a devaluing of its ‘currency’. This is evident in certain sectors, for example ironically enough, education itself. Until 2012, teachers who held a master’s degree or a PhD received an extra allowance in their salary as holding such qualifications was firstly, relatively rare, and secondly, considered a high academic achievement.

Although the stoppage of this allowance was mainly due to budgetary refinements, it is indicative of the worth of master’s degrees in today’s job-market. Now, the majority of teachers qualifying or recently qualified will have already pursued master’s degrees with the hope that it will set them apart from the crowd, but unfortunately, the crowd all had the same idea. A master’s degree will still be an extraordinarily positive endeavour, but rather than setting one apart from the crowd, it is now necessary to keep up with them.

Moreover, this situation can end up contributing to classism. It is of course true that one of the most effective strategies to combat classism is through education – it can allow people of a working class background to enter industries commonly reserved for the middle classes. But the emphasis being put on education has now backfired in this regard and is actually contributing to a class divide.

How so? Well education is quite expensive. A master’s degree typically sets you back five or six thousand euros. Coupled with the €3,000 per-year degree you need to have before you can do a master’s, this means that often, only people of means can actually afford to compete in the world where you need a master’s degree to survive.

An unsustainable rate of growth

There a number of key factors which are contributing to this unsustainable rate of inflation in education. We might look to government policy, but the reality is that this situation is being driven by forces beyond the education system itself, particularly the job market. In any industry, employers will value traditional degrees from traditional universities, and favour higher grades. Add to this a deplorable job market and a relatively accessible education system, and there becomes an extraordinary pressure for young people to become as qualified as possible to obtain a job.

There is also a severe knock-on effect for teachers, as there emerges greater and greater pressures on them to help their students achieve high grades. This will involve finding the most efficient way to get the most amount of A grades in the Leaving Cert, often by offering students pre-prepared essays to regurgitate in their exam. The students who can deal with this fail to develop any critical thinking skills, ultimately bringing the standard of education down, whilst the students who don’t take to such rote-learning get left behind believing that they can’t achieve.

The employers, in turn, don’t get the same calibre of employees they used to, because as students they became too accustomed to being spoon-fed what they needed to do. The teachers in the meantime have had a breakdown from the pressure to get their students to achieve whilst struggling to find full-time employment despite having a master’s degree. The increasing levels of educational attainment are indeed to be applauded, but they cannot come at the expense of the quality and nature of education, and we need to be careful about this.

The supply and demand process is approaching its pinnacle in education. Demand is growing from employers for students with higher and higher levels of education. But there is only so high one can go before the whole system becomes devalued. Will it be necessary for everyone to do a PhD in 15 years’ time? And if so, where to from there? Two PhDs? Education is a great thing, of that there is no doubt. But we need to reflect on where it’s going, and how to make sure it doesn’t backfire completely. It is not that pursuing higher education should be discouraged – indeed the very opposite. But perhaps we need to look at the pressure the education system is putting on itself and whether a renewed focus on the nature of education and what we wish it to achieve is required.

Dr Gary Keogh is a researcher at the University of Manchester. Follow him on Twitter @g_keogh

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