Business leaders question degree value as enrolments grow

Top bank chief and African college founder agree that campuses have limited role in building job skills

April 10, 2019
Bank of America

The head of the second-largest bank in the US has questioned the value of going to university, arguing that it does not provide the bulk of the skills needed in most workplaces.

Brian Moynihan, chief executive of the Bank of America, told a Brown University conference that college does provide workers in many fields with an important intellectual grounding.

But that contribution was often not worth the time and the financial cost, typically $200,000 (£153,000) or more in the US, given the relatively greater value gained from work experience, Mr Moynihan said. Even with a $22 million salary, he said, he gave that same advice to his son.

“You have to teach the basics,” he told the conference, jointly hosted by Brown and Spain’s IE University. “And for business, just like anything else, there’s a language and a skill set that you have to teach – those basics are all I need.”

“If you’re a business school president, I apologise, but the value of business schools is actually completely on the table right now,” said Mr Moynihan, whose bank has 200,000 employees and $2.3 trillion in assets, second in the US only to JPMorgan Chase. Mr Moynihan is a Brown alumnus and also has a degree from the University of Notre Dame’s law school.

He was not alone in delivering that basic point to the conference. From the world’s poorest continent, Fred Swaniker described creating the African Leadership University in 2015 with the goal of getting ready for 2035, when Africa will have the world’s largest working-age population.

“But we quickly realised, actually, that universities were the wrong vehicle,” Mr Swaniker said.

Mr Swaniker estimated that about 10 per cent of necessary workplace skills were acquired in the classroom. Another 20 per cent came from peers, mentors and projects, while 70 per cent came from on-the-job experience, he said.

“If we are talking about employment, or preparing people for future work or so forth,” Mr Swaniker said, “it’s important to recognise that universities were never designed to solve that problem, because fundamentally universities are knowledge enterprises, not skills enterprises.”

As a result, Mr Swaniker has adjusted his plans for building universities across Africa and has instead begun creating “lifelong learning centres” that offer six-month courses aimed at providing leadership and technical skills for university graduates and other experienced workers.

“Universities must be seen as part of a new system for work-related skills,” he said. “Not the system.”

The Brown conference reflected broad concern about matching social expectations with workplace needs, and illuminated some wide country-by-country variations in how that is handled.

South Korea, with about 80 per cent of its high school leavers now going on to university, is finding that it has an oversupply of university graduates, said Jim Yong Kim, a Korean American and former Dartmouth College president, who led the World Bank for the past six years.

Yet South Korea – like many places – has established a public expectation about the value of a degree that is proving hard to reverse, even as many graduates end up “starting coffee shops” or otherwise finding themselves underemployed, Professor Kim said.

Germany – now a leader in vocational training, with about 40 per cent of its high school graduates going to university and 40 per cent receiving training in a trade – fought a similar battle, Professor Kim said.

“If you ask the Germans,” he said, “they will say that was difficult – it took focused effort, it took a long time, but now we’re there.”

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