What does university really get you ready for?
It is of no doubt that education is a tricky topic. The more we learn about the complexity and diversity of human beings, the more complicated finding the right way to teach people seems to become, especially when they are considered in groups. Luckily though, human ingenuity allows the teachers of the world to come up with new means of transmitting knowledge and training people which can be tested, and later widely-implemented if they yield the desired results.
A new trend in recent years is project-based and practical education, which has built upon the possibilities offered by the internet. Services such as Coursera or Udacity have implemented these concepts, offering the possibility of career-building courses. One of the advantages of this learning method is that it gets you ready for a specific job, traditionally reserved for university graduates, in a reduced time. Some proponents of substituting the current university system with this type of education have even emerged
An important aspect to take into account when considering new forms of training is the stage at which it is aimed, and the objective of said stage. Let us consider university education. Are universities institutions with the single objective of creating trained professionals? The answer is no. Some programmes do actually have the added value of preparing students for a specific job, such as teaching or medicine degrees. However, in general this is not the case. On the surface, degrees seem to give the keen student a general and wide picture of the state of a topic, it‘s history and where it comes from, as well as where said topic is heading. However, studying a degree will also give this student skills which vary from degree to degree, but which are usually of wide applicability. Logical reasoning, technical and formal writing, presentation skills or carefully measured scepticism are but a few examples of the real-life skills which come hand-in-hand with giving a degree your all.
What is the most important thing you learn at university though? It is a skill which goes unnoticed until it is needed. It is essentially acquired from spending three or four years of tackling a variety of complex topics, with limited initial information and a deadline ahead. The most important skill a graduate acquires is the ability to perform tasks he or she is not prepared for. It is the ability to be presented with a problem, analyse it, find the necessary information and devise a solution. This of course can also be obtained from the project-based training described above. But the theoretical background and the experience in searching adequate literature for extra information is essential for creating new solutions or using existing ones if necessary. Being able to discriminate necessary from superfluous information, or knowing when to simplify and how to avoid oversimplification are also invaluable skills in this context. In general, having to bear with the rigours of academia, be it during university or as part of a graduate‘s career, rewards hard working students with the ability to successfully spar with the unknown. A university degree does not prepare you for a specific job, but it certainly will help you become an accomplished professional, if you put your all into it.
Of course, a degree is not necessary in all cases. Steve Jobs created one of the most successful and influential companies on the planet without completing his university education. Michael Faraday managed to contribute many advances to electromagnetism with no formal training in physics and mathematics. And the university systems on the world are far from perfect. In Europe students endure what I believe to be too much specialization at the undergraduate level. In the USA the opposite happens, as degree programmes can be too general, not exploring their central themes with enough depth. Perhaps a intermediate approach would be better? This is just one of the problems, among many, which university education must tackle. However the success of the university system cannot be disregarded.
The benefits of project-based training cannot be ignored either. What is with a good chance one of the most important parts of a university degree? I think many will agree with me when I say it is the final dissertation, essentially a long and intense project. The importance of a solid subject background when completing a dissertation though is second-to-none. Isaac Newton, one of the greatest minds in the history of the human race is often quoted as to saying “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. An adequate knowledge of the state of your field can help you avoid mistakes and use the work of others. It can also help you come up with new results and solutions from scratch if necessary.
Every type of education has its place in society. A world solely populated by graduates would collapse. In the same way however graduates are essential for the continued forward motion of science and knowledge. It is the non-specific education that graduates receive which allows this, and turning universities into professional training centers could have dire consequences for the advancement of the human race. A degree will generally not get you ready for a job, and that is a good thing.