Tag Archives: entitlement

Academia is responsible for the devalued degree

You’ve probably heard the phrase “bad money drives out good”. That’s Gresham’s Law expressed in its colloquial form.

If you want to know one of the big reasons six, seven or more years in higher education (with the resulting costs or debts) doesn’t guarantee you a job; why the few position advertisements you see all demand other credentials on top of degrees; and why, if your résumé doesn’t show that you’re constantly taking new programs and acquiring new credentials, it gets binned on arrival, just think about Gresham’s Law for a moment. If the “money” is good (your degree is worth something) it doesn’t need endless add-ons and you don’t need endless new degrees on top of your old one. If it’s debased in some way, on the other hand, “more” will be better (think of it as just another form of inflation at work).

Now take a look at what Karl Denniger posted this morning, in “That College Degree? It’s Worthless.

Before all those of you who have your credentials from a Canadian, British, Australian, French, etc. university start snickering at the “perfidious effects of making the football and basketball coach the highest-paid person on campus” that’s so prevalent in the United States, and patting yourselves on the back for having gone to a place that “put the academics first”, hold on. Debasement and the graduation of students who should never have been allowed to pass isn’t just found around the athletic scholarship community.

Any school that debases grades — or simplifies course materials to ensure a higher pass rate — or reduces the amount and types of work required — or poses multiple-choice tests as “examination” without other means of testing what’s been learnt — is engaged in the same game as passing through the point guard or linebacker who can’t read, can’t write, can’t do much of anything, really, other than play the game.

That kind of “bad” degree has been driving out the quality ones for a long time now.

First of all, the dumbing-down of the public school system has meant that much of the first two years of a bachelor’s degree now is taken up with teaching things that used to be part of the high school curriculum, back when many people went to work on the strength of less than a high school graduation. Staying in the university-bound stream say, sixty years ago, meant you were doing what is now second-year calculus and algebra in your Grade 12 math class — the same for the hard sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities — because by the start of Grade 11 everyone else had peeled off, into a different work-bound program, or left school and taken employment.

(My father built his entire career on a Grade 10, Business and Commerce stream education, rising to high management in a major corporation. On the way through his employed life, he also invented a solution to an on-going problem that gained a patent — and not one of the phony, lawyer-driven ones like “one-click ordering” that pervade the patent system today.)

As an undergraduate in the 1980s, my papers came back to me dripping with red ink. Every misuse of the English language was picked up and criticized. Class averages ran in the C to C+ range — Bs really were “exceeds expectations”, and the As you received reflected “outstanding” work.

I’ve been a university professor in three different faculties at two different universities in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, all teaching Master’s level courses. Had I marked as I had been marked (and since, in my elementary school years, I was marked on a scale where 70% was the pass-fail point, and therefore was used to a demanding system) there would have been a riot in the streets. Every time I’ve taught, there’s been a line of whinging students at the Dean’s door complaining about having to be evaluated by oral examination, by written examination, and by presentation in a class setting with no multiple-choice in sight. Every time there’s been complaints about the red ink correcting their language (even though they, unlike me, didn’t lose marks for it). Anyone getting less than an A- moaned because I “wasn’t being fair”.

Every time, as well, the Dean would force me to “redo” my marks, to keep the institution’s “A-level reputation” intact.

You pass out students who don’t deserve bare Cs with As and you devalue your degree. It’s as simple as that.

Gone are the days when simply seeing Cambridge, Oxford, Toronto, McGill, Harvard, Yale, etc. on someone’s résumé meant you didn’t have to think about whether or not they were competent. The Ivy League and the Canadian schools have long ago gone down the same “can’t fail anyone, everyone’s ego is too fragile not to be classed as really exceeding expectations or being outstanding in some way” trap the public schools went into.

Take a look at business communication today. Riddled with errors. Unable to express coherent thoughts. Or business numeracy: missing in action (people who can’t figure change without a computer to tell them precisely what to pull out build spreadsheets which we all just use and treat as gospel). Or logic in decision making. I see a fair number of strategic plans that have contradictions on the same page — often in the same table or paragraph — and no one bats an eye.

No wonder employers now demand very specific additions to your degrees. After all, credentials like the Securities course (CSC), HR Professional program (CHRP), or Project Management credential (PMP) don’t come with the residual “odour of success” that a name-brand university offers. They have to be effective at transferring skills, or they go nowhere in the market (like the ISP that the Canadian Information Processing Society tries, year after year, to foist as the “mark” of an IT professional).

The on-going addition of more and more letters after your name, in turn, is driven because all that “effective skilling” comes at a price: it’s not education (giving you abilities for a lifetime) but training (giving you specifics that expire as the world changes). That the typical method of job evaluation to set pay grades used in most organizations is driven by educational qualifications — and because managers’ pay bands go up if the staff under them are raised — the quest for pay increases has led to the specification of increased qualifications, one piled on another.

Your responsibility is to ensure that you get value for money in your education. That means, first and foremost, that you get one. A paper dripping with red ink and an honest “C” will teach you far more about communicating effectively than any degree program in “communications” will. Find the toughest old-school types, and learn from them.

Then recognize that in today’s world your institution of higher learning is probably debasing your degree anyway. But if you’ve really learned (as opposed to just passing through) you’ll be prepared for what life throws at you.

With 3 out of 4 white Americans (just about 4 out of 4 blacks and Hispanics) now expected to experience at least one period of significant unemployment and poverty in their lifetime, you had better have gotten something permanent out of it, eh?

25 years. Too many dots. Be worried, very worried.

Neil Sandell is a senior radio producer at the CBC in Toronto. His work has been recognized by way of more than 15 radio documentary awards inside and outside Canada. In his Atkinson Series of articles that first appeared in the Toronto Star on Saturday, December 1st, 2012, he talks about the plight of students who have dressed themselves in university degrees and have nowhere to go. After you read this post, please read Sandell’s articles and then draw your own conclusions.

“Canadians are asking what the future holds for themselves and their families. In a profoundly changing world, they know that traditional strategies are no longer enough to provide economic security and prosperity, and protect our environment. “New approaches are needed to meet the challenges that confront us—challenges that threaten our ability to generate new jobs, our standard of living, and our social programs.”

THE PROSPERITY INITIATIVE, A Summary, Government of Canada © Minister of Supply and Services Canada 1991

“We may be giving teachers more sophisticated methods of delivering education, but perhaps the kids really need more sophisticated methods for interpreting the world.”

 Elaine Decker, Vancouver TeacherTHE GLOBE AND MAIL, August 6, 1992

Post-university student disappointment over the lack of work they were expecting to find, and suitable work in general, is a story that just won’t go away. The real story, the one we believe Sandell missed, is that the seeds of the problem were sown at least as far back as the mid-1980s and nobody paid attention. Akio Morita and Konosuke Matsushita made these predictions in 1986 and 1987 respectively:

“American companies have either shifted output to low-wage countries or come to buy parts and assembled products from countries like Japan that can make quality products at low prices. The result is a hollowing of American industry. The U.S. is abandoning its status as an industrial power.”         

— Akio Morita, CEO, Sony Corp. 1986

“We are going to win and the industrial west is going to lose out; there is not much you can do about it because the reasons for your failure are within yourselves.”

— Konosuke Matsushita, Founder of Matsushita (Panasonic) 1987

At about the same time, Lee Iacocca was observing that U.S. steel shipped to Japan made the return trip with a wheel at each corner. Nobody paid attention to him either. This was happening over 25 years ago. How is it that so many people claim that they didn’t see it coming? What did they think was coming?

Konosuke Matsushita was not one to mince words. Elaine Decker would almost certainly tell Katie Daniels (a disillusioned U of T graduate interviewed for Sandell’s article) to give herself a good shake and disabuse herself of the notion that university degrees are guarantees of employment, let alone employment in her chosen field. Universities teach people how to collect and organize information, turn it into learning, use it in arguments, and just plain think.

Jobs are a function of demand. If there’s no demand locally and no demand elsewhere, there should be a Plan B. Correction: there must be a Plan B. In business as in government, there’s no knee-jerk response that triggers the creation of a new job just because someone with a university diploma and in need of an income happens to be in the neighbourhood.

We’ve run out of time, the pain is more intense, and it’s hitting much closer to home. Katie Daniels was not sold a bill of goods. She simply trusted her sources and didn’t do her homework. Should she pursue a master’s degree because of some imagined promise of employment? Where does the word promise appear in master’s and degree?

Clicking on Millennium Project will take you to the University of Michigan, Flint. These are not the Millennium Scholarship people. These people, academics and non-academics, work in the education industry. They treat universities as the businesses they are and they’re worried about the future of the business. You might be invigorated by what they’re thinking in Michigan, why they’re thinking it, and what it means for the current and future crops of students.

In 2001 I left executive search for good and moved to the other side of the table: the transition counselling side. It’s also known as outplacement counselling. Since making the move, I’ve met with 1918 people one-on-one who lost their job and their income 10 minutes before I walked into the room. There are lessons to be learned from meetings like those. More dots that need connecting.

To overcome the inertia that has been plaguing this problem for over a quarter century, a lot more people are going to have to connect a lot more dots a lot more quickly. Thank you for visiting Personal Due Diligence. We specialize in identifying what dots to connect—and why.

Everybody is somebody’s child

Among the city-states of ancient Greece, Sparta stood out because of the quality of its warriors—male and female. The tribal elder inspected all babies to determine whether they were fit to live in that society. Those who were were assigned to a regimen of education and training to become soldiers. Those who were not were exposed to the elements or left in the marketplace for others to find and adopt. 1, 2, 3 

By today’s standards, that would be considered barbaric. But for us to call it that would be hypocritical.

The difference between the Spartans and us is that Sparta made no bones about what it was doing and why it was doing it. Was their behaviour right or ethical or moral? Can we make that judgement without understanding that Sparta lived in a tough neighbourhood? That, dear reader, is for you to decide. But as you ponder, consider the state of today’s workplace, quality of life, the world economy, the rise and fall of once great companies, job and financial security and what it takes to survive in our neighbourhood. Then ask yourself:

Where did our children’s ideas of entitlement come from?

Why don’t managers use plain language to tell their subordinates what’s expected of them and what the consequences are for failing to deliver?

Why do employers tolerate environments in which energy that should be going into producing better products or delivering superior service is being spent playing politics?

What does it really take to climb the corporate ladder?

Why do we need euphemisms like “team building” and “coaching” and “training” and “professional development” when we could just as easily—and candidly—call them what they are: measures for increasing output and corporate profits, hopefully with commensurate increases in employee salaries?

Why are managers afraid to tell the people they separate from the business that, yes, you are being released because your performance was substandard and we should never have hired you in the first place and then left you to fend for yourself?

Do we realize that, with few exceptions, everybody’s job and the lifestyle it pays for are hanging by a thread?

Maybe we’re not telling them this because nobody ever told us. We know that none of these malaises will disappear any time soon. They represent the current state of business ethics and human nature, and human nature changes very, very slowly. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t equip our children and ourselves to test for the presence of good management and candour. Johnnie and Jeannie deserve to know that it’ll take more than a postgraduate degree to be set for life.

Our children are our future. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. How many times have we heard one or the other or both? We are somebody’s children. The present is the future we’ve created. Were we told to be on the lookout for any of this before we started our first full-time job? Are we teaching our children to protect themselves and their future by not sharing any of this with them before they start community college or university? And what are we teaching ourselves?

Sparta prepared its children to survive in its neighbourhood. Can we justify not preparing ourselves and our children to survive in ours?

1.  Ancient Greece — 500 BC to 100 AD –  http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~duchan/new_history/ancient_history/greece.html

2.  The Ancient Greek City-State Of 
Sparta – http://greece.mrdonn.org/sparta.html

3.  Ancient Greece – Sparta Story – The British Museum – ancientgreece.co.uk