Richard Crooks's Website

Stop Denigrating Modern Degrees

There is a tendency among certain elements of the tabloid press to bemoan the demise of higher education. According to these elements, universities have expanded greatly, and instead of teaching “proper” subjects, like English, history, and sciences (but only certain types of science of course!) they now teach “mickey mouse” subjects, like social media marketing, psychology, and golf studies. So this goes, universities are wasting their time teaching students funky new subjects instead of traditional old fashioned disciplines, like those that they learned at university.

Except of course the same people moan about how the education system doesn’t teach students skills that are essential for the workplace.

You actually can’t moan about both of these at the same time. Why?

Think about a modern workplace. How do you think companies do marketing? Oh yes, they use social media, since most potential customers use social media, and social media harvests exquisitely detailed data about their customers, it’s a platform that allows companies to reach those customers directly. So tell me again, how is social media marketing a useless degree in an era where companies do social media marketing?

By contrast take Latin. How many people actually speak Latin as a first language? Now I enjoy learning languages, and I use Duolingo to learn French and Danish, and I’ve spent time in Armenia and use Ayolingo to learn Armenian, but unless you regularly work with speakers of these languages, they are basically party tricks. I can give a brief statement in Armenian or Danish to a group of friends, family or colleagues, but I could essentially make it up because I can be confident no one in the audience will speak those languages.

Yet even these languages are more useful than Latin, because there are people who speak them, and do not speak anything else, and there is an outside chance I might encounter them during the course of my life. Whereas there is no one who only speaks Latin. But a degree in Latin is considered a proper old fashioned subject that’s a real degree, unlike film studies. Oddly film studies isn’t a proper degree whereas English literature is. So studying an entertainment medium like written text (ironically often including the dramatic arts like Shakespeare) written essentially to entertain an audience is a more real field of study than studying the visual arts produced essentially to entertain an audience? How does this work? Is the idea that written text is better because it is, even though film arguably has a greater impact on modern society?

And the market supports my point of view. Graduates from golf course management at the University of Birmingham are one of the UK’s highest earning group of graduates on average. Clearly golf course management teaches useful work related skills that earn their graduates a lot of money. Aren’t courses that teach students skills that are relevant to the workplace a good thing?

I put this down to the audiences (who are often older) of these tabloid newspapers not being familiar with how the modern world works, and what certain relatively new fields of study are. Think dotting grandparents who ask what the grandchildren as studying at university and are confused when the answer is “computer game design”. My undergraduate degree was in “biomedical sciences”, which to many people sounds like a fake version of medicine for people who couldn’t get into medical school. This of course was compounded by saying “when I finish I want to be a biomedical scientist” which sounds like “I want to be a sociologist” when you’re studying sociology. Except it’s the qualifying degree to be a biomedical scientist (known as “medical laboratory technician” in North America), so it’s actually a very stringent and professional degree. Now I’m a bioinformatician and that’s even more confusing for people, I’ve even met physicians who don’t know what one of those is. Bioinformatics is of course a vital discipline for the modern biological sciences, but if I try to explain to someone who’s never used a computer before that I use computer algorithms to analyse biological data, it sounds like nonsense.

And while we’re onto sociology, that’s allegedly a fake degree. Yet sociology is the study of society. Does society not exist? Does it not have an impact on things? Can it not be modelled? In fact all of these are true, society exists, it affects stuff, and it can be studied. In fact a lot of the mathematical formulae for studying society have been adapted for studying biological systems, since biological systems are also made up on interacting parts in a system. One author even called it “molecular sociology”.

In conclusion, make up your mind. Do you want people learning good old fashioned traditional academic subjects whose graduates demonstrate an ability to study a subject with dedication to a high level but whose practical application is limited outside academia, or do you want people learning skills for the workplace, which may be very different to the one that you’re used to? I’m happy with both personally. If someone wants to study obscure languages or ancient civilizations, it may not be useful today, but it certainly shows that they can study material to a high level, and if someone wants to be excited about cinema, social media or other features of modern life to begin a career in them, that's also cool. Wouldn't it be a shame if we were all the same?

Back to Other Stuff
Back to Website Home

About this background