A degree is now a rite of passage

June 17, 2005

University qualifications have become the minimum requirement for getting a job, says Frank Furedi. Welcome to the credentialist academy

It appears that our product is losing its value. The market no longer regards the university degree as an unambiguously sound investment.

Contrary to previous forecasts, UK graduates can, over their lifetime, expect to earn £150,000 more than those with only A levels. According to the findings of the British Labour Survey, that's about £250,000 less than the previous estimates. Arts degrees are a particularly devalued commodity. Over a lifetime, a male arts graduate will earn a mere £22,458 more than if he had not gone to university. Just think about it: three years of paying fees and three years of lost wages represent a tidy sum. The poor fellow with an arts degree would have been better off working for a year and going on a two-year holiday before returning to the labour market.

Statistics about the anticipated lifetime earnings of graduates tell us little more than the fact that as more people go to university, the economic value of a degree declines. They say nothing about the social and cultural value of a degree.

Credentialism - the expansion of paper qualifications - devalues university degrees. But credentialism is also part of a process whereby people's lives and identities are redefined in accordance with new cultural norms. The more that university is experienced as an expansion of schooling, the more it loses its status as a distinct experience that endows the possessor of a degree with special status. In this sense, a degree ceases to be a tool for accessing cultural capital - or at least a significant amount of cultural capital.

But the fact that it no longer constitutes a site where a distinct status can be gained does not mean the university has ceased to have a social significance. Indeed, it can be argued that it has become even more important in the lives of young people. Once possession of a degree comes to be taken for granted, it is difficult to do without one. It may not represent any unique or special qualities, but it signals that the degree holder has succeeded in embarking on the life course expected of normal young people. In a sense, it normalises the graduate and tells the world that the individual has been able to meet a modicum of expectations for at least three years.

This is where the reorientation of universities towards providing key skills and learning outcomes is so important. Where else but in a university can young people learn to manage their timetable, decode their teachers' lecture notes and grasp the basics of how to use a PC? Potential employers can also expect graduates to possess the skill of time management. Someone with a good 2:1 - even in the arts - is likely to know how to use an alarm clock. After a graduate has spent three years attending lectures and seminars, employers can feel reassured that he or she is likely to come to work on a regular basis. The university's mission of providing key skills ensures that graduates leave with a modicum of literacy and numeracy skills.

Credentialism, which incidentally erodes the distinction between school and university, has the perverse effect of elevating the importance of a degree. It may not bring loads of extra money, but it provides clear evidence that you are able to meet normal expectations. As for institutions of higher education? They are facing the problem of trying to discover whether the credentialist imperative leaves any space for academic life.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology, Kent University.

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