Young people are catching on: An academic degree isn’t worth much

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Young people are catching on: An academic degree isn’t worth much

Few have dared to question the effectiveness, integrity, and necessity of colleges and universities. The COVID-19 crisis is about to burst the bubble of silence that surrounds them.

More and more people are beginning to understand that academic institutions have failed not only in setting an order of priorities for scientific research, but in making the necessary transition to the digital age in education.

The heads of these institutions talk about rapid adjustment to online learning, but conceal the embarrassing truth: Most of the world’s professors have no experience whatsoever in the online medium, and now they are forced to improvise. Were it not for the lifeline thrown to them by Zoom — a limited format that barely scratches the surface of online learning’s myriad possibilities — they would have been silenced entirely.

Our book “Academia: All the Lies,” which addresses the culture of denial and self-deception that has taken over the supposed temples of truth, came out two weeks before the outbreak of the pandemic. Although, in the book, we raised the possibility that a global pandemic would force processes of change to take place, we didn’t think that our forecast would come to pass quite so fast.

At a time when the skies are closed and making a living is difficult, many young people see higher education as the default option. With time, they will understand that the worth of an academic degree is shrinking in the employment market, that career patterns and patterns of education are changing fast, and that “general education” can be acquired in a more concentrated and pleasurable fashion outside of the academic framework. In fact, we are constantly surrounded by endless sources of information, and all we need is to want — and know how to acquire — new knowledge.

More and more employers around the world, and not only in the field of high-tech, are waiving the entry requirement of an academic degree and offering training and enrichment tracks in place of academic study. In August, Google declared its intention “to disrupt the college degree” by means of a professional training track only six months long. This announcement, issued by one of the world’s economic giants, has sounded the trumpets for the oncoming revolution.

The model of academic instruction is a fossilized model that has not changed in any meaningful sense since the Middle Ages. It is based on the old-fashioned requirement to earn a single degree at a single institution; on studies that take place over certain fixed periods of time identical for all subject areas (class, course, semester, 3-4 years); on a choice of courses from a limited, and often random, buffet menu; and in particular on the passive, and usually boring, frontal lecture format.

Until now it has somehow continued to work, but this model is thoroughly unsuited for the generation of digital natives. The very idea that scientists (who primarily devote themselves to research) are also the ones who develop the pedagogical curriculum, present it themselves, and test the results of their instruction — is not only unprofessional, but even absurd. It’s like forcing a television presenter to become the show’s producer, investigative reporter, director, cameraman, and graphic designer.

Sadly, the public still regards an academic degree with near-religious awe, and remains blind to the astonishing truths that lurk behind the myth — for example, that professors are not required to undergo any kind of pedagogical training or systematic professional development on the subject of teaching. The quality of their teaching is not a significant factor in their promotion, and there is no real quality control for academic courses;

Even after their bluffs have been called, the requisite change in the model of higher education is unlikely to come from the institutions themselves, for the simple reason that it involves the closing and/or radical reformation of many institutions, not to mention mass layoffs.

Prof. Scott Galloway, one of America’s leading intellectuals, recently said that COVID-19 was a death sentence for 50% of the nation’s universities. The data published on the shuttering of institutions worldwide even before the outbreak of the epidemic proves that his prediction isn’t so implausible.

COVID-19 has been a particle accelerator for changes in the way we learn, just as it has been a particle accelerator for changes in the way we work. The speed of the revolution will be dependent on the speed with which young people and their parents are able to sober up from the myth of the academic degree, on the openness and flexibility adopted by employers, and on the courage of governments to break free of outdated paradigms.

Once institutions of higher education lose their monopoly on advanced education (in the field of scientific research, they have already surrendered this birthright to the world of industry), all of us will see not only online courses on a much higher level, but countless more effective and enjoyable pedagogical strategies than those offered by academia today — both on campus and in the “copy-paste” to Zoom.

Dr. Tamar Almog and Prof. Oz Almog

Dr. Tamar Almog, a pedagogue, and Prof. Oz Almog, a sociologist and historian, are faculty members at the University of Haifa, Israel. Their book “Academia: All the Lies – What Went Wrong in the University Model and What Will Come in its Place” (Yedioth Books) was published in Hebrew in March 2020. The translation of the book to English was released in August 2020 (Amazon). 

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