Universities should stop promising an education they cannot deliver

Neven Sesardic says if the wondrous benefits of a university education - beyond teaching basic skills for employment - sound too good to be true, it's because, in many cases, they are

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 May, 2015, 5:39pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 May, 2015, 5:39pm

Are universities selling people a bill of goods? Are they engaged in false advertising? If your answer is "Of course not!", this is for you. Students go to university mainly because it promises to teach them something that will give them the necessary qualifications for interesting and desirable jobs. For some jobs, this is really true. For example, one cannot become a doctor without studying medicine nor go into bridge construction without studying civil engineering.

But there are many areas of study (the "liberal arts" subjects such as cultural studies, history, philosophy, sociology) where most of what students learn does not immediately appear to be very useful for what they will typically do later in their careers.

Furthermore, even students of medicine and engineering have to take a lot of courses about topics that are neither connected with their narrow field nor readily associated with the acquisition of specific marketable skills. Among them are so-called "general education" or "core curriculum" courses, or "cluster courses" and "free electives". They usually take up a huge part of university studies.

When universities in Hong Kong recently switched from the three-year to the four-year system, out of the large number of the additional slots thereby created for new courses, all went to these "generic" (non-major) items.

Understandably, universities deny that this kind of knowledge is useless or irrelevant for employment. They claim that the study of liberal arts subjects and of general education courses also brings palpable practical benefits to students and increases their employability. But how? This is where things get murky.

Employers do have a preference for university graduates (including those with liberal arts degrees) over those who only finished high school. Doesn't this in itself demonstrate that there is important "added value" of higher education for purposes of employment?

Not necessarily. It is safe to say that those who enrol in university are on average already smarter than others to begin with. Perhaps it is mainly this pre-existing difference that gives them a critical advantage, rather than any knowledge or skills they acquire during their studies. On that assumption, the value of a university degree would consist largely in its signalling to employers the presence of those personal characteristics which are necessary qualities in a good employee but for which university could claim little credit.

I am not arguing here that this "signalling hypothesis" is true. My point is merely that many prominent scholars defend it and support it with empirical evidence. Hence, it is irresponsible to proceed as if this alternative explanation did not exist at all. And it is intellectually dishonest to play up the job-related skills that liberal arts education supposedly produces, when the increased employability of bachelor of arts holders may be due to something much less exciting.

One of the main selling points of universities is that they will enhance their students' critical thinking ability, teach them to avoid fallacies, engage in rational discussion about controversial issues, and so on. Presumably these skills would be valuable in all jobs.

The problem with these promises, again, is that they are extremely dubious. A cursory look into relevant literature shows that prospects for systematically boosting critical thinking are either uncertain or bleak. After all, psychologists cannot confirm that even studying logic significantly improves people's reasoning. Clearly, then, it must be much harder to demonstrate wonderful improvements of human thinking in all those other courses that often do not even focus specifically on inference or reasoning.

Indeed, attempts to enhance critical thinking either fail or have very limited success. And, in those cases that happen to give encouraging results, it is not clear how long the effects will last after the training period is over. All in all, contrary to what you can read in university promotional materials, the current state of knowledge does not justify optimistic and sweeping assertions about the great impact of higher education on critical thinking. Therefore, if you are a critical thinker, you should be highly sceptical about the alleged wonders of teaching critical thinking.

Other frequently declared goals one can find on university websites - such as providing "whole person education", "life-long learning" and making "responsible citizens" - are even more problematic because they are so fuzzy and nebulous that it is unclear how the success in achieving these goals could ever be verified (or falsified).

Let me say in the end that I have loved teaching at various universities and I always considered myself extremely lucky to have such a rewarding and hugely satisfying job.

Just think about it: talking regularly to many bright young people, having lively discussions with them, occasionally opening their minds to new ideas and then seeing their fascination with these issues and desire to know more. What a feeling.

But is it really necessary to corrupt this magnificent enterprise by publicly and repeatedly promising to do something that we must know is exaggerated, unrealistic, poorly defined, hard to test, or simply impossible? Is it necessary to live a lie?

In recent years, I have often gone into this kind of rant in conversations with colleagues, and once also in the presence of top administrators of a local university. The usual reaction of my interlocutors is to shrug and look for a good moment to switch to another topic. This is my last try.

Neven Sesardic is a retiring professor of philosophy at Lingnan University