distinctive

Is Your Degree Really Worth Less Now? You Can Make Sure It’s Not By Being Distinctive.

Is Your Degree Really Worth Less Now

I’m sure you’ve heard people saying that a degree is worth less than it used to be. Maybe you believe that yourself.

I don’t think that’s quite right.

There are different types of value you can put on a degree:

  • How much your life is changed as a result;
  • How the extra experiences push you in different directions and/or challenge your attitudes;
  • Securing better earnings based on your higher qualification;
  • The amount potential employers respect the qualification.

You’ll have other values to add.

For now, let’s look at views on your qualification, graduate premium, commuter students, and employer attitudes.

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More About the Qualification than the Challenge?

In recent years, there have been more stories of academics under pressure to go easier on students.

Students are prone to feel unhappy if their grades suffer, especially when they’re encouraged to challenge themselves. Instead of working to improve, some students want top grades right from the start.

Some of this is anecdotal and some is based on average grades creeping up over time.

The academic side of university life is just one aspect of the experience. You’re almost certain to be challenged to some extent, and you’re bound to find other surprises along the way outside of the lecture theatre.

With more people graduating, the challenges can help you develop and achieve unexpected things.

Ultimately, the main person to rely on if you want to grow is yourself.

New experiences are what you need to bring greater depth to who you are and who you want to become. More and more people are graduating, so it’s crucial to focus on more than just the qualification.

Sometimes, getting top grades from the outset means you’re not being challenged enough.

If you’re going to demand anything, don’t make the demand an easy ride. If you do that, you can’t find so many ways to distinguish yourself. And the whole point is to be distinctive. More on that below…

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Value For Money & Graduate Premium

You can’t work out for sure how your future earnings will differ had you not gone to university. Unless you end up working in a role where your degree is an absolute requirement, you can only use guesswork to reach a conclusion.

An IFS study has found that, despite growing numbers of students over recent decades, relative wages have remained pretty steady. Graduates can still expect a premium compared to school-leavers without a degree.

At the moment, that is. The study doesn’t predict this good fortune can last and has found school-leavers catching up a fraction.

For now, it’s only a small change. The IFS concludes that it’s possible for some new changes to come to light that will keep the graduate premium rolling along, albeit for different reasons. On the other hand, the gap may continue to close. That’s a long time in the future, however, so you have no need to panic about that today.

Whatever the case, looking at trends over a period of time across the board isn’t the same as your personal story. It’s totally different to look back at a year, ten years, fifty years later, and make a personal value statement.

Who knows what a different life could have looked like? If the sole focus of going to university is on making more money, there are other ways to make far more money without setting foot on campus.

Many students go to university in hope of improving their future life prospects. A big chunk of that means looking for a better salary. There’s no escaping that.

Future prospects improve when you can be distinctive. More on that below…

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What About the Off-Campus Experience?

More people are commuting from home to get to university. Many won’t hang around campus so much or be so involved in the social and extra-curricular activities.

Traditional routes into higher education used to mean living on or around campus. So how can commuter students manage without missing out or feeling overwhelmed?

A piece on ChangeSU recognises that commuting students haven’t been considered differently to other students, even though many will have different needs:

“An unfortunately high number of commuter students felt isolated, either because of their age, or because of being a commuter; deeming most people to have become good friends from their time spent in halls; making it difficult for commuter students’ to make new friends.”

This is a problem. It’s not easy to replicate the campus experience when you’re commuting, so alternatives should be arranged and other social events planned to suit longer-distance students.

Students’ unions are making headway into these issues. But the work may take a while and is unlikely to suit all those who commute, given such varied circumstances.

To gain the most value without the same extra-curricular activities, one of the most effective situations would be to take on a degree that’s based on your current employment and career trajectory. When the degree really is the missing piece for getting from A to B, the other aspects of university experience won’t be quite so important anyway. Still a shame, but not with the same potential change in value.

When you still want (or need) the full experience package as a commuting student, find as many ways as possible to get a taste of as much as you can:

  • Ruthlessly schedule: Limit less important activities and only give them space if they don’t get in the way of university activities.
  • Seek out alternatives: Speak to your students’ union and find out what they have to offer by way of support and activities to suit your specific circumstances.
  • Create your own alternatives: If nothing else is on offer and your location is more of a problem than time is, create your own movement. Find out if other commuting students are looking for more. If your idea gains traction, it may be the success you need to differentiate yourself and stand out from the crowd after you graduate.

There’s value in showing commitment to getting the most out of your wider university experience despite having to commute. Make it part of your story once you graduate if you can. Highlighting your ability to triumph over struggle is a great way to make yourself distinctive as a graduate. More on that below…

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Employers Respecting Your Qualification

When employers judge your suitability for a job, what if they also judge your qualification?

Every now and then, stories pop up in the media that express surprise at how hard it is to find jobs. They mention Oxford and Cambridge graduates who can’t find work, despite applying for many jobs. Some don’t even get to interview stage.

So what’s going on?

All drama to one side, one thing has definitely changed.

Employers can no longer just filter candidates based on whether or not they’ve got a degree. In the past, fewer people went to university, so employers could easily limit the number of people for selection by looking for graduates only.

Today, with roughly half of school leavers going on to university, it is no longer possible to filter in this way. It’s easy to be inundated with candidates who all hold an undergraduate degree.

I’m sure you know how important it is to stand out in other ways. But how much of a lowdown have you got on how to do this?

You might think that everyone will become practically impossible to impress. The more people achieve, the more you have to do to stand out.

But that’s not true. It’s a mistake to think that you have to impress employers more than ever. You’re not superhuman.

So how do you make your play?

Instead of thinking more, think:

  • Specialist;
  • Niche;
  • Unique;
  • Narrative;
  • Individual.

In other words: You must be distinctive.

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Getting From Graduate to Distinctive

Standing out means being noticeable. When you’re memorable, you’ve got distinctive qualities right there. It’s got nothing to do about ticking every single box. It’s got everything to do with ticking a box that nobody else has. Find your unique.

Here are a few thoughts:

  • Show how you went the extra mile to achieve something;
  • Explain how you solved a problem and improved a situation;
  • Demonstrate what you have done in your subject (or in your chosen field of work) to set yourself apart. It could be a blog, a presentation, a talk, specialist volunteering, fundraising for something they’re invested in;
  • Describe how you accomplished a special feat despite your demanding situation. Show how you overcame those personal struggles.

Your job is to tell relevant, memorable stories. The focus isn’t on the qualifications or the institution you attended. The focus is on you and what you’ve done.

You can do all sorts at university. You’re probably already exploring what’s possible. While there’s still time, push yourself even further.

 

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What Does “Value” Mean Anyway?

You may be thinking by now that half of this isn’t related to your degree anyway. So where’s the direct value in that? Why should it count as part of the overall experience?

That’s where the confusion comes in. The more you think about tuition fees, the more danger there is in forgetting to look outside of the academic work.

Treat the fee as part of the whole experience, otherwise you’ll go mad working out how expensive every seminar is.

I’m not trying to justify how you feel about the money side of things. But it’s important to separate finances from your thoughts about the future. They both matter; they just don’t always gel together. When you try to link them up, it gets messy.

In other words, trying to work out the true return on investment of a degree is practically impossible. That’s why your job is to make the most of your time at university in as many ways possible.

Which areas are specifically paid for through your tuition fee?

It doesn’t matter.

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At university you’ve got access to so much at your fingertips. It’s there for the taking, so make use of the resources. Don’t get caught in the trap of thinking that high tuition fees mean you must use all your time to ensure you graduate with a First Class Honours. University is an experience of experiences.

The more you embrace what’s on offer, the more you can excel when it’s time to show off your distinctive qualities.

Your degree has not lost value.

You just need to extract value differently to the way it was done in the past.

Look forward, not back.

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Definitions, Markets, and Moving Beyond the ‘University’

Some concepts are so huge that they can end up meaning little in isolation. Terms like ‘the student’ and ‘the university’ are a good example. That’s why we’re unlikely to see these terms disappear.

But might we see them in a very different light as time goes on? How definitions change is up to all of us. What do you see going beyond the university?

If you’re stuck for ideas, check out what Richard Hall has to say about moving beyond the university. Take a look at Ronald Barnett’s book, “Being A University“. Read the Times Higher Education piece on a cooperative university in Spain. There’s plenty to chew over and surely much more to come.

What lies beyond?

What lies beyond?

The university as it currently is may not be what everyone wants to keep alive. For some, it emulates the market too much. For others, not enough. Whatever your view, much concern rests in the ability to see universities survive in a meaningful way.

I doubt the idea of the university will simply be replaced with a form of learning and development that is not at all based in higher education. But don’t rule out drastic alterations on many other levels, especially if limited views are applied to complex matters. We’re still in danger that use of the term ‘university’ could be relaxed.

This comes at a time when market terms and analogies are being thrust upon higher education. And when reality proves rather different to what was initially envisaged, the sector continues to undergo tweaking. Just consider the clearing and adjustment process over the last couple of years, as well as moves such as Birmingham’s choice to award unconditional offers to 1,000 applicants.

Despite increasing marketisation of HE, how much of a market is there? Some desire it more than others. If we continue to head in this direction, will aspects of marketisation and customer relations become ever more interchangeable? Will students and teachers “dissolve the symbolic power of the University into the actual, existing reality of protest, in order to engage with this process of transformation”? Will we remain in a confusing soup, or is something more definitive around the corner? What will happen?

Students don’t have an easy choice to transfer to another university or get their money back for a disappointing or inappropriate course. Giving students the label ‘consumer’ is not helpful. Jim Dickinson says that students should not be labelled as if they can only be ‘one of two types’. Learner or consumer? Why not both? Why not anything else? A consumer is not the opposite of a learner, so why set arguments up as an either/or?

I guess it’s in part because simplifications like this are easy to digest and discuss. But the devil, as ever, is in the detail. Limited views are great for soundbites, less useful for policy.

Distinctions are required otherwise the ‘student’ is erroneously deemed two-dimensional. Speaking of which, how distinct is a university?

Maxxim Consulting refers to four ‘distinct groups’ of HEIs with a little overlap and many differences. To apply a blanket market treatment to them is, therefore, unhelpful. The question is, can institutions enhance themselves and develop enough in distinctive attributes under current frameworks? Anything is possible to an extent, but that doesn’t mean they can do ‘enough’. That’s the key word in my view. Slightly different isn’t distinctive enough. Neither is it necessarily there for the benefit of the students they serve.

The final paragraph of the Maxxim Consulting report makes an interesting point:

“The student leadership also has a key part to play as the all-important ‘voice of the consumer’.”

Back to that word ‘consumer’. It wasn’t going to take long for the term to crop up again. If universities are struggling to find a distinctive edge, why should the student be allowed?

In terms of higher education, everyone should be distinct, everything should be distinct, and HE should fuel a thriving to be distinct. Not unique in every possible way, but distinguishable.

This is where the market model is assumed to help achieve great things. Yet a report by CFE and Edge Hill University (“The Uses and Impact of HEFCE Funding for Widening Participation“) has this to say:

“The perceived ‘marketisation’ of HE and increased competition between institutions could mitigate against the prioritisation of collaborative activities and/or activities that derive benefits for the wider sector and policy objectives, such as early interventions in schools.” – p.5

Less collaboration, less benefit to policy, less early years intervention… Ouch.

Moving beyond the university is anything but simple. For every decision in the name of strident consumer action and market forces, there are implications behind the scenes that can contradict all the good intentions. That’s if you assume all intentions to be good. And thus starts yet another debate.

Though it is hard to frame a simple definition to the term ‘university’, this must be attempted before anyone can move beyond it. Stefan Collini tackled this in his book, “What Are Universities For?

Markets require an element of understanding or appreciation by consumers (whoever they are in each case) in order to allow the market to continue operating. Without a market, there is no market, naturally. With this in mind, Collini makes a good point regarding the wider concept of the university:

“Part of the problem may be that while universities are spectacularly good at producing new forms of understanding, they are not always very good at explaining what they are doing when they do this.” – p.89

In addition, Collini does not see a genuine market:

“…the so-called ‘market’ is in practice a rigged framework (benevolently rigged, for the most part) which is periodically adjusted if there is expression of one or another form of discontent with existing provision.” – p.105

There seems no easy way to untangle this. There is no start point or end point. Without a solid presence, it is hard to noticably move beyond anything.

One way to move beyond may be by stealth. Martin McQuillan explains, using Collini’s book once more:

“As [Collini] points out the accelerated growth and complexity of higher education in the UK means that there is no point in its history from the mid-nineteenth century onwards that can be reasonably described as the normal state of things.  He is not in favour of a fixed idea of what a university is but rather recognises the importance of a rainbow sector that is in turn sensitive to the needs of local communities and the nation state that funds it.”

All of this suggests that we, both as individuals and collectives, can work to bring our ideas and ideals of the university closer to a reality. In recognising this ‘rainbow sector’, diversity and distinctiveness should be championed as a way forward to benefit local, national and international viewpoints.

We still don’t have a clear explanation how to achieve this. But diversity promotes more than one answer. The ‘university’ and the ‘student’ are concepts without a single definition. Which definitions do you wish to move beyond, which do you wish to change within, and which do you wish to keep as is?

Welcome to the multitude.