Tuesday, October 12, 2010

George Hook says "Your degree isn't worth the paper it's printed on"

George Hook's talk in UCC last week was only briefly mentioned in the Irish Times today, and his remarks might interest local readers. For those overseas, George Hook is one of the 'Commentariat' a journalist and media man who came up as a Rugby commentator and has a general reputation as a 'straight shooter'. He is not a University graduate, but is, I believe, married to a University lecturer, and his views would be fairly good proxy for the general public - The 'plebs' as late mother used to call them.

“Your degree isn't worth the paper it's printed on" was the session title. Much of the talk was fairly reasonable hard won advice on the value of preparation, planning presentation and communication to set yourself aside from the pack. It was the kind of thing I wish I'd heard when I was 19, but wouldn't have listened to.

In responding to an audience question, Hook was characteristically scathing of the hold that Universities have on the public imagination. Too many degrees, including many from the Institutes of Technology that couldn't possibly lead to jobs were making the tertiary a holding pen to put off reality, he said.  "There were enough people studying journalism in Ireland to staff every newspaper in the US". The number of students should be halved, he said, to better reflect the real job market for people with degrees.

This view of the degree as job training is one I've caught flak for in the past, and will again. Sure, it glosses over all the other values of a degree, and the deeper value of a well educated population to democracy, but first we must eat. That said, a lot of places do try to flog degrees which sound like they would slot you right into a job, but won't. Journalism sounds like one. I suspect a lot of people would be much better off with a good meaty Philosophy or Maths degree, that sets them up with the kind of intellectual deep, wide stance to keep them balanced as they tackle whatever the 2020's might throw their way.

"The standard for first class honours degrees needed to be brought back up to where it belonged, producing less graduates but of better quality. "

I can't argue with that. I have a first in Geology. I'm smart on a good day, I put in a bit of work in fourth year, and got lucky on a couple of papers but that should mean a 2.1. The firsts in Geology belonged to the Rock Whisperers. There are many like me in other fields.

Of University presidents, he said "They think they are Multinational CEO'[s, but they are really big school principals" and said their salaries should be halved to reflect that.

I'm ambivalent on that one. You pay peanuts, you get monkeys. That said, any kind of CEO pay package should, I believe, the tied in hard to hitting specific goals. I'd pay them less day to day, but put the difference into a golden handshake that they have only an even chance of hitting. But then, of course, you have to set smart targets and find good independent people to review that. Easier said than done.

Many students, he said, condemned themselves to failure by not planning ahead. Less than 20% of students, he felt, were really thinking about what was going to happen to them after college. Students needed to be prepared for that fact that while they must work after college, they might not earn. He advised the crowd that they should consider voluntary work to gain experience after college. I couldn't agree more.

Future wise, his remarks overall give us a clue as to what many voters are thinking. Our economies are in recession and the substantial population without degrees suffering perhaps more than the graduates. In such a climate, voters will support spreading the pain as widely as they can, to lighten their load. There is a political window opening for reintroducing third level fees. The UK, if they adopt the Browne Report, is going to jump out that window, and I expect Ireland to follow suit.

Finally, I'll note that the talk was arranged and hosted by UCC Entrepreneurship and Social Society, one of many vibrant student societies on campus. Groups like that were a massive part of my own education in college, rounding me out as a person and helping me make many useful mistakes in a fairly safe box. I'm continually amazed that I've never once read anything about them in the broad and vibrant online debate about University Education. 

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