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Why universities need to act fast to prevent degrees becoming worthless

Why universities need to act fast to prevent degrees becoming worthless

Former lecturer and Google Trainer Michael Knowles, the founder of award-winning agency ROAR Digital Marketing, is warning universities that degree qualifications are in danger of becoming completely worthless as students are receiving an inadequate and outdated level of education.

HOW much does a university degree cost these days? With it reported that tuition fees cost an average of £9,250 per year in the UK, students are looking at forking out at least £27,750 if their course runs for three years.

But how much is a university degree truly worth these days? I have my doubts that the value of the qualification matches the increasing cost of the course.

Working as a Google Digital Skills Trainer and a Senior Lecturer at Newcastle University, I have many experiences of visiting universities to teach students who had paid a lot of money to be there to gain further expertise in their chosen subject.

But, sadly, the reality for a lot of students was that they were leaving their further education underprepared for the working world because they weren’t gaining the knowledge of how the industry really works.

It used to frustrate me to witness students being underserved because their course material was so outdated, and they were ultimately leaving university without the basic skills and commercial mindset necessary to enter their chosen industry.

They were simply not receiving the highest level of education they deserved because they were being taught material which was either far too generic or theory-based, resulting in them being severely underprepared for full-time employment in either in-house or agency teams. 

In such a fast moving industry as digital marketing, many learnings can be out of date within three years, so for universities to be teaching theory which is sometimes 10 years old, shows how badly let down they are.

In what is a further hammer blow for universities, I’ve recently read about how global giants such as Google, General Motors and Kellogg’s have become the latest companies to remove degree requirements for most of their jobs, further devaluing a university qualification.

Traditionally, top jobs at companies were always reserved for those who had evidence of good grades from their degree, but removing this requirement will only discourage people from going to university at all, especially when you consider the increased costs of the courses.

I have worked at some excellent individual universities and with some wonderful members of staff who try their very best with what limited resources are made available to them, so this is in no part a dig at them.

In fact some of these thoughts are actually based on what I’ve seen working with amazing former colleagues who basically run the show for their respective institutions, but are being overstretched and not being given adequate resources to deliver great education. 

I’ve long called on the Government to take action to ensure degrees don’t become completely worthless so the Prime Minister’s recent statement about his commitment to crack down on rip off degrees seems a step in the right direction.

Rishi Sunak said he was to introduce new measures to prevent students being ripped off by their degree courses after it was revealed 30 per cent of graduates don’t progress into highly skilled jobs or further study on completion of their studies, and this acts as a further wake up call to universities.

While the statement is welcome news and hopefully a step in the right direction of improving university standards, I must admit that conversation around the ROAR Digital Marketing office did veer towards hopes this wasn’t a backhanded way of the Government using this as a way of cutting further into the creative and arts disciplines. Or perhaps we’re just being too cynical?!

So what can universities do to avoid becoming completely ‘out of touch’ with industry?

One major thing they should concentrate on is engaging more with industry to build stronger long-term relationships and bridge the gap in the relevancy of what is being taught during lectures and seminars.

By providing young people with more real-world experiences in challenging industry-based scenarios, students will enter the workplace with more knowledge of how their industry functions.

Universities need to look outside of the classroom and the curriculum to get more input from businesses and senior leaders who will be able to share key aspects of the industry, reducing the high emphasis currently placed on theory.

Allowing students to engage with live issues within business will teach them lessons they will never forget, and it’s these moments you can never replicate by using a hypothetical example as part of a lecture.

It’s about building mutually beneficial relationships with businesses to ensure they’re getting something out of the partnership too, but fundamentally it’ll make such a significant difference to the lives and expectations of ambitious students ready to enter the world of work.

Of course, there are some excellent alternative routes into employment, such as apprenticeships and traineeships, which I’m very supportive of, and I acknowledge these routes as really useful ways of young people gaining real industry experience.

And I’m also supportive of businesses welcoming great people of varying education and backgrounds, as it is often the case that those prepared to work hard and have real passion for what they do can overcome gaps in education and prove just as valuable to the business as somebody ‘better qualified’. 

As the most junior member of my team recently quoted to me, originally from the mouth of Tim Notke: ‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.’

However, my words of warning are more directed at the higher education sector which risks alienating a whole generation of students if it doesn’t adapt its practices.

I am fully aware that a university degree isn’t the only way for young people to get a great job. But degrees need to represent good value for the extremely high tuition fees students are now required to pay.

A university degree was designed to allow graduates to get ahead in employment with employers always desiring the qualification, and it is my opinion that their university studies should be challenging to give the student a strong sense of pride that their hard work has translated into good grades that are actually worth something.

By Michael Knowles, Managing Director, ROAR Digital Marketing

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