Do we still need universities?

Many would be earning more if they had started work earlier. We need to make universities better suited to the world of work, argues Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.

by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
Last Updated: 12 Jan 2016

Over the past decade, I've been on the payroll of several universities, so here's my attempt to bite the hand that feeds me (without trying to eat it completely).

The point I'd like to make is that higher education is at best incoherent and at worst suicidal. Students enrol to enhance their career potential but end up as employable or unemployable as they were in their pre-college lives.

In fact, many would be earning more - and in more relevant jobs - if they had decided to work in the first instance instead of spending three years in college. To make matters worse, this deal is now more expensive than ever, which makes the fun side of the college experience less guilt-free and not quite as hedonistic.

As for academics, we are still treating students as our junior avatars, as if they were looking to devote many years to researching a highly technical problem that is (a) of interest only to us and (b) will probably make them 'overqualified' (a euphemism for 'unemployable', which resembles the 'I don't deserve you' of romantic relationships).

Furthermore, given that academics are promoted for their research output, teaching students is considered a third-rate or charitable activity compared with spending time on research publications. And few things highlight the inadequacy of academia like academic publishing.

We are paid by universities to produce content for the journal publisher, which then sells this content back to universities in the form of journal subscriptions, usually after having other academics act as free reviewers or editors.

So how can we fix universities? First, we need to align demand (what students want) with supply (what universities offer). This can be attained by paying attention to what employers need, since what students want is a job.

Second, academics should be hired and promoted for their ability to make students more employable.

Third, this goal should be monitored via reliable metrics, which would essentially answer one question: to what degree does the average graduate from X programme improve his or her career prospects by completing that programme?

In short, universities must embrace immediate reform or more employers will be looking elsewhere, which will encourage more students to do the same. Unless universities change, there will soon be better alternatives.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is a professor of business psychology at UCL, VP of innovation at Hogan Assessments and co-founder of metaprofiling.com.

Follow Professor Chamorro-Premuzic on Twitter at @drtcp.

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