What are Universities doing with their Students?

What are Universities doing with their Students?

Jesse Martin 11/04/2018 8

In a recent article shared by Heather McGowen, universities were targeted as places where students can’t get proper job training. The highlighted subject was computer sciences, one of the STEM subjects where “preparing students for real-world jobs” is the mantra of the day (decade?).

The article talked about how Microsoft, Linux and other (mentions Amazon and Google) have started their own training programs to prepare graduates for work in their firms. Not an add-on to a degree but a stand-alone certificate that teaches students programming and other skills that the firms actually need.

The STEM chorus would have us believe that STEM subjects are the only worthwhile subjects to study because that is where the jobs are. So, why are the big software/technology companies starting their own, stand-alone educational programs to prepare students for work?

Isn’t that what the STEM chorus is singing? Take STEM subjects so you can be prepared for the real world of work. Something doesn’t feel right.

The article highlights the speed at which universities can change to meet the demands of the day. Anyone working in higher education knows that a serious change in a program usually takes at least a year, or more if the paperwork isn’t prepared exactly as the administration demands. The number of administrators and committees new programs need to go through can be mind-numbing. And, that assumes that the faculty in a department care enough about the students to even monitor what the commercial world is looking for.

So, what are universities doing with their students?

The vast majority of students are entering university in order to get a qualification that will get them employment. That is what we tell them they need to do. They live in a world where they have been told, since childhood, that going to school after finishing school is the answer to success. Get a degree, get a job, and live happily ever after. It worked for mom and dad, so it will work for you too.

Society expects higher education to live up to their end of the implicit agreement – prepare our children for the real-world and real-world employment. If this doesn’t happen directly, as in "get trained" for a specific job, at least give our children a skill set that is valued enough for them to get good jobs. Why isn’t this happening?

The majority of graduates today are not finding work that they hoped they were training for. Over half of our graduates in the last five years are either under or unemployed. The biggest employer of our graduates today is in the service industry (if they find jobs at all). Usually, low paying jobs that leave them disillusioned and feeling betrayed by the system. The majority of higher education professionals blame the students – lazy, entitled, looking for the easy way out, not committed, and on and on. Having worked closely with students for years and years, I know that the students do exactly what we ask them to do.

Another problem is the devious (and I mean devious) marketing practices of universities. I was at a skills conference and one of the keynote speakers was one of the hundreds of vice-presidents from the BBC talking about the success of the Media Studies programs that were being established across the UK. In that particular year, the combined programs were going to graduate just over 5000 students. What a brilliant success. I asked a simple question. How many Media Studies graduates were going to find employment in the media field after graduation. After some evasive non-answers, I pushed him to make a guesstimate for the audience – about 40 to 50 in broadcast media. Media Studies is sexy and attracts students so universities are marketing them to the hilt.

What happens to the students when they get to university? They sit in large lecture theatres where I am assured, they are magically endowed with critical thinking skills. This is where I get the, "I ask open-ended questions on my exams" response, which somehow endows students with the ability to think (it doesn't). The brilliant lecturing allows students to acquire many other higher order thinking skills by cramming, checking boxes, and paying their money (although I ask open-ended questions), and if the students don't acquire these higher order thinking skills, it is entirely the students' faults.

Actually, what is happening is that the students are filled with vital content for four years, which they don’t remember, and get a qualification. The faculty who are leading the content drive do so because content acquisition (besides being vital) is easy to push and measure. The need for an easy and efficient way of teaching is research. Faculty members are not rewarded for their teaching, they are rewarded for their research output – which has become a game in and of itself.

The students are fodder that keeps the cash coming. Even though their tuition is only a percentage of a universities income, any grants or funding is tied to student numbers, so the more the merrier.

As a result, the students get empty qualifications that businesses don’t really want. They used to, but they are getting tired of what they are now getting. No real-world skills (except test taking). No higher order skills (except filling in bubble sheets). Nothing but a warm and breathing body that has proved that he or she can sit for thousands of hours being bored to death in a lecture theater. A necessary ability for a large number of future cubical inhabitants, but not the kind of graduate who is going to be a high-value employee for any business.

This is why businesses are setting up their own training programs.

In a number of articles, I have written that teaching and research need to be separated into different kinds of institutions. And before all of you from teaching institutions begin bleating that you are already there, as a sector, your track record isn’t much better – and you don’t even have the excuse of research.

In addition, I have written about the need for an institution(s) dedicated solely to the teaching higher order thinking skills. Businesses desperately need quality graduates with well-developed higher order thinking skills, but where do they go to get them. I know that your lectures and open-ended exams equip your graduates with all the higher order thinking skills they need, but the data says otherwise.

I have spent years talking to, writing to, and writing about traditional higher education institutions about this need. I have written endlessly about how we can teach students to acquire these skills (The Science of Learning), and, as I was recently told by a high ranking university administrator, “you have nothing to contribute to our institution that we don’t already have” (that’s not the first time I have been told that). So where do students go to learn these skills, and where do businesses go to find them.


Because of the complete lack of interest in traditional higher education, I believe that a new private institution needs to be started that is dedicated to nothing but training students with higher order thinking skills.

I don’t see any other way for this empty niche market to be filled. Traditional higher education is not interested, and there is nothing out there to fill the need. The world, including the business world, needs higher order thinking skills. I believe that there is a lucrative niche (large niche) market waiting for an enterprising entrepreneur to own the market.

In this world of massive tech giants who dominate their markets, I believe that the first one in who does a decent job delivering thinking graduates, will become a massive player in the million – billion – trillion dollar education sector that has turned away from educating students who can think.

We can make this happen. Let’s make it happen. The world needs this like never before. We can do it.

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  • Kathy Scanlon

    Outstanding approach.

  • Shane Richards


  • Christine Dickson

    Awesome read and very inspiring.

  • John Bennett

    Higher education is failing to meet the needs of both students and employers, and only a fundamental transformation can put it on the right track.

  • Laura Carey

    Nowadays, a college degree does not provide graduates with the grounding they need to move seamlessly into the workforce.

  • Frank Johnson

    It seems universities want to take the money but without offering anything extra in return.

  • Keith Murphy

    Degrees should be about intellectual exploration and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

  • Molly Campbell

    Higher education has to be more aligned with the workplace.

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Jesse Martin

Higher Education Expert

Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.


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