What good is a degree?

Here is a piece I wrote for Lot’s Wife, which should be available from the Monash Clayton campus now.

Another year of university, another year of universal drudgery. Whether it be your first, third, or Honours year, you may be looking ahead to 2013 with apprehension. Maybe you’re worried about the course load ahead, or whether you can juggle work and study between socialising. A year of university is a labyrinth to get lost in.

But what if it were for nothing? What if this fretting never amounted to much? Stop and think: How employable will you be after the three or more years? If you are planning on becoming an engineer or IT specialist, then yes, perhaps there is a strong demand out there. That Arts degree? Not so much. Even a Law degree doesn’t guarantee work straight out of university these days.1 Employability goes far beyond a degree, and if that’s all you have then it isn’t enough. The changes are not the individual’s fault, and are beyond control. What we understand of education and work is evolving, and the discerning student is advised to be adaptable.

Universities date back far beyond institutes such as Oxford, but it was this English model that paved the way for modern establishments. What began as exclusive clubs for the rich and privileged have become more and more open to the masses. Today the focus is on an extended pedagogy. Going to university immediately after finishing secondary school is expected. Adults will hop between careers numerous times throughout their working lives, and colleges account for these mature age students. Learning is for life. Despite this demographic and ideological shift the university remains a revered, hallowed place.

How long will this last though? It exceedingly appears—like with the rest of culture before—that the ivory towers and sandstone halls may soon be ground to dust under the indomitable advance of technology.

Online learning has long been available, but the digital will become much more integral to uni life. Our own Moodle is an example of combining traditional learning with online tools, but the sudden boom in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) will see the pendulum swing entirely that way. As The Economist puts it, “…online provision is transforming higher education, giving the best universities a chance to widen their catch, opening new opportunities for the agile, and threatening doom for the laggard and mediocre.”2 Imagine a world where you can access a course from Harvard from your home in Hawthorne. Boundaries break down, and more people have access to better tools. Start-ups include Udacity, Coursera, and edX, and you can sign up to them right now (though don’t forget your real-world course load). This is all potentially good for the budding scholar, but what does it mean for campuses?

For the top, not a lot. There is no denying that there won’t be a shake-up, but the best have a pedigree, and it is hard to qualify an online degree. Mid-tier universities will have to specialise, and have an online campus in conjunction with the physical one. It could go the way of the publishing industry, with an amalgamation of large bodies and a proliferation of specialised providers. Like with any industry, once supply reaches a critical peak, demand and income become bottle-necked.

And if we think of the concept of ‘work’ as a global, all-encompassing industry, similar shifts abound.

The case for earning your degree is less and less compelling simply because everybody has one (ever more so with MOOCs). Unless it’s for medicine, engineering, or IT, wasting time and money at university is an increasingly futile project when your future prospects are grim. Has anyone ever told you to do a ‘real’ degree, or to not even bother and just start working? It probably came from a thirty year old earning a six-figure paycheck who’s sick of paying for your worthless education. Your parents may tell you to follow your dreams, but when you’re leaning on the system only to fall down the rabbit hole it’s perhaps time to do a Business major. If you’re a “P’s get degrees” vagrant, then may the Dean have mercy on your soul.

That said the world should not revolve around job prospects and practicality. There is a difference between working for happiness (short term) and for meaning (long term).3 Were work merely for productivity, governments would allot educational pathways to its young citizens rather than have the hassle of freedom of choice. Actually, that could be a great system. Show a penchant for mathematics and an interest in Lego at a young age, and you’re an engineer for life. Good bye existential crisis, hello smooth groove of infinity. The number one prerogative of any government should be investment in the future, in the construction of infrastructure, and there is no greater infrastructure than the young. Of course, no government in their right mind would assign the role of, say, film director or food stylist, let alone journalist (unless it was Propaganda Minister). That is why we have so many universities offering a massive range of learning opportunities. We have specialist schools that teach their pupils how to be artists, whole institutions whose focus is on videogame production, even while major and minor studios go under (and not Down Under). Maybe government intervention would be for the greater good.

Work is changing. The graduate of today should look forward to internships, contracts, and multiple part-time undertakings. And the liberating thought is that it won’t revert back to the good old days. Perhaps we will subsist on a civilian wage4 as our AI accomplices perform the mundane tasks. In a post-work, post-scarcity civilization, will we become bored as the days drag by, or will humanity reach another era of enlightenment and innovation? Where ever we end up, diplomas and degrees are sure to be laughable relics.

In the here and now though, experience is everything. Get out there and find part-time work at McDonald’s. Buy a camera and get off Instagram. Travel the world (preferably not the Western one). Youth occurs once, and an empty savings account means you’re making the most of it.5 And if you want to study Creative Writing, well, it’s your life.


  1. http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21567373-american-universities-represent-declining-value-money-their-students-not-what-it

  1. http://www.economist.com/news/international/21568738-online-courses-are-transforming-higher-education-creating-new-opportunities-best

  1. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/01/theres-more-to-life-than-being-happy/266805/

  1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/03/world-without-work

  1. http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2013/01/14/the-invidious-reach-of-personal-finance-snake-oil/

Further reading regarding the future of education:



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