If there is one thing I believe should change in higher education, it’s the perception of the university as a gateway to a career instead of a place of academic enlightenment. Now, I realize this perception is a result of how higher education coevolved to meet the needs of contemporary culture. I also recognize the unlikelihood this perception will ever change. Regardless, I don’t see why I have to agree with the present situation or maintain hope that it will change for the better.
The history of higher education is distinct from other forms of education, with some universities among the oldest learning institutions in the world. The development of universities, and higher education more generally, over the course of the last millennium is closely tied to religion. Universities were established as organizations free from direct control of the church or other religious institutions, a privilege usually granted by the king or state. This privilege allowed for academic freedom to question, research and advance knowledge. Those who attended universities were usually individuals from the upper social class who had substantial wealth and weren’t required to devote all their time to laboring for money. They didn’t need to gain knowledge to obtain a job and , if they did, they did so by apprenticing/gaining on the job experience. University attendees were motivated by a true passion to learn. Thus, people initially attended universities for the sole purpose of immersing themselves in knowledge.
Education is widely accepted to be a fundamental resource, both for individuals and societies. Indeed, in most countries basic education is nowadays perceived not only as a right, but also as a duty – governments are typically expected to ensure access to basic education, while citizens are often required by law to attain education up to a certain basic level. As society has evolved, the necessity for labor-based trade skills has shifted. Today’s society is technologically integrated and the ability to interact with and interpret information is now a crucial skill. Universities have become the “go-to” destination for learning how to operate in our technologically advanced world.
In the modern world universities have two purposes: equip students with advanced skills useful in the workplace and to further human knowledge and understanding of the world. A decrease in employment opportunities (due to outsourcing or technological advancements eliminating the need for human-manned positions) combined with an increase in population growth has yielded a highly-competitive job market. Degrees in higher education have become a factor used to differentiate between job applicants and are seen as an indicator of applicant “quality”. At first, this meant that a bachelors degree ensured one better chances at becoming employed. As more and more people saw the need for a university-granted degree, the employment market became increasingly saturated with bachelor degree-obtaining applicants. Now, a masters degree has become the standard for obtaining a “high profile” career.
Universities are now perceived as a place to obtain a piece of paper that (supposedly) guarantees gainful employment. Don’t get me wrong, they are still a place of academic enlightenment. Faculty and students still engage in the free thought that drives the advancement of knowledge. However, most universities are more focused on pumping out degrees than knowledge advancing research. As we look to the future, universities will inevitably coevolve to meet the needs of the people. Education has been and will continue to be a valuable resource — one that is essential for the advancement of humankind. It is my earnest hope that universities will once again become a destination for the passionate pursuit of knowledge rather than a destination for a better chance at gainful employment.