Will the university of life make a comeback?

Can careers be launched from the university of life without a formal degree?

Graduates are flooding the market in ever-increasing numbers to very uncertain job prospects, many with significant debts to pay off for the privilege. Employers are sifting through thousands of applications from candidates with soft degrees covering courses as disparate as puppetry to the ubiquitous media studies qualification. Large numbers of graduates emerge from the process with seemingly limited life skills and even basic literacy and numeracy deficiencies.

Companies complain about the difficulties of identifying talent and recruiters bemoan how woefully unprepared candidates from this age group are for the job search process. Many school leavers are fearful about incurring increasing levels of student debt. Many parents are asking me the question is it really necessary today to go to university? Could their children launch a successful career without a college degree?

My answer is – that depends.

Some sectors university education is vital

In general terms there is persuasive research that there is indeed a correlation between completed further education and anticipated future earnings. There are also specific careers where having a university education will certainly be mandatory, simply because of an absolute need to guarantee a high level knowledge base within a certain field. I’m thinking of the traditional “hard” courses: medicine, sciences, engineering or law.

I would definitely not want to have an unqualified doctor perform surgery on me, or to cross a bridge not built by an engineer or have untrained chemists create drugs (although many do – but nothing legal). There has been a proliferation of soft courses during times of prosperity and certain vocational occupations where entry previously was via school-leaving qualifications and on the job training, now require a university degree.

But will this change in harder economic times?

Not necessarily a sign of intelligence

Strong educational achievements are generally perceived, not necessarily correctly, to be a formal indicator of a higher level of general intelligence, focus and diligence. Those of us that know students, understand well that university can be about none of the above for many. But whether universities produce candidates who are better equipped for the workplace or even life itself is one of fierce debate.

Not having these qualifications does not suggest a lack of these skills or potential abilities – just a lack of proof via an education system. We all know that many successful people whether in business or other sectors did not go to university. Richard Branson, Mary Kay Ash, Bill Gates, Stephen Spielberg to name but a few. We have also been served in restaurants by waiters/waitresses with a whole string of letters after their names.

Economic change

As we have switched to what Peter Drucker describes as a ” knowledge based economy” , there has been a cultural and status shift from working with a product (hands) to working with information (the head). I’m wondering if now, as employers struggle to identify and weed out suitable talent and graduates have difficulty entering the workplace at the right level, how that will change.

Delayed maturity?

Robin Marantz Henig in an article for the New York Times “What is it about 20-somethings?” suggests that this age group are delaying the growing up process. As with most age groups my thoughts are that they are simply responding to the cultural, economic and technological developments of their time. As many countries have increased the number of students that complete further education, creating certain expectations in the process, we have recently seen a reduction of entry-level jobs with the worst economic downturn for many years.

Having grown up in a relatively prosperous period, raised by parents who are affluent enough to support their children financially, sometimes until their mid 20s, many are now more than a little lost when those job prospects don’t materialise.

Boomerang kids

They are returning to the family nest as Boomerang Kids, as home in luxury chez mum and dad, is infinitely more appealing than a lower standard house share which is what they can afford – if they can afford anything at all. The banking system obligingly indulged, or dare I say it, created, a pattern of instant gratification by giving young (non-working) people extended credit lines. Remember those ads “consolidate all your debts… go on a dream holiday now” and whole businesses grew up around a new trend for taking a gap year or even years, with parents paying thousands for their offsprings to dig a well in Africa or pick grapes in Australia. Technology has made communication instant, so they are not used to waiting ..for anything much at all, which is a source of frustration.


As we move into a period of economic uncertainty where all the goal posts are being moved, workplace structures are changing and I actually suspect it won’t matter how certain skills are acquired. Further education programmes, particularly the softer liberal arts courses, will surely be cut as countries try to address the issues of chronic national debt. One thing to focus on for sure is the acquisition of real marketable skills.

This can be done equally well outside a formal education system, as well as within it. Distance and e learning are emerging forces for adding to a qualification portfolio. We are already seeing a gentle return to the creation of old school apprenticeships. What individuals do with their different experiences is what counts and that is not related to their educational level.

Many of us have interviewed enough unemployable, unintelligible masters graduates to know that to be the case. I wonder if for the first time in many years the university of life will make a comeback and lose the stigma that became attached to it.

What do you think?

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4 thoughts on “Will the university of life make a comeback?

  1. Gwyn Teatro

    Dorothy, you have hit a bit of a hot button for me here so I hope you will forgive the length of my comment. I got on a roll!

    I think that a lot of people have come to look at university education as something that every one must have in order to take their place in the world and be a success. Not to put too fine a point on it, I also think that is rubbish.

    Academia is really not for everyone. To your point, there are certain professions that require deeper study, exploration and testing to ensure the acceptable level of technical proficiency before they are foisted upon an unsuspecting public. However, to me that is only a portion of the general population.

    Today, there are a myriad of ways to learn and they don’t all involve spending four years in a landmark university so we can proudly write our alma mater on our resume as some kind of badge of honour. To your point, regardless of the status of the university attended, saying you went there, might suggest it, but doesn’t actually prove that you have learned anything.

    So, having had that little rant, here’s what I think we should be moving toward to ensure that more people have the opportunity to find fulfilling work and make an optimal contribution:

    Place more value on trade schools. Those who choose to learn a trade are every bit as worthy. We have to begin to value the work such as that of a master carpenter, a good plumber, or a refrigeration technician on a wider scale and place more emphasis on the skill it takes to be good at those things.

    Place more value on life experiences. Like you, I have met many a university grad that had no clue about the world or the people who live in it. However, those who have travelled or had other life affecting experiences, perhaps even in tandem with their formal education, bring a balance perspective that suggests maturity and potential.

    Bring apprenticeships or internships back into vogue. Learning side by side with an experienced person is a fine way to learn and grow. When combined with perhaps some on-line tutoring, theory and application can work extremely well together.

    Encourage mentorships between the experienced and inexperienced.

    I think the most important thing though is to shift the mindset of people in industry and business away from the notion that a university degree is the only way to gauge potential for human contribution in the workplace.

    In short (finally, she says!) I think the university of life has a definite place in today’s environment in combination with theoretical learning that does not need to come from traditional places to have meaningful application.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Gwyn – thanks for such a detailed and thorough response. I wanted to stick to the core message and you very kindly padded it out for me!

      I do think that with the economic downturn there will be a shift and not having a college degree will not carry the same stigma that it has had in the past decade. I also see much being written about the real value of an MBA today and employers are urging young people to stay in jobs if they have one. These are confusing times I think for this generation.

  2. Kathy

    Dorothy, This is a hot button issue for me as well so beware! About me, I went to a “brand name” school in the Boston area and I have two kids, 11 and 13. I am hoping the college education “bubble” bursts by the time they are college age. I believe that the University of Life should include holding down a job while in high school and in college (preferable one that requires arriving before dawn!), kids doing their own laundry and travel (by themselves, staying in hostels).
    This is what I see: parents in suburbia are starting to question the high cost of higher education but for lack of a better/just as acceptable alternatives, are sending their kids down this traditional path anyway. This is what I think should happen: kids should be encouraged to go to trade schools if academia isn’t right for them (as Gywn mentioned), four straight years of college after high school should be discouraged ( employment during the interim time, of course) and school age kids should be encouraged to generate ideas/plans for innovation and business start ups.
    Obviously there are so many issues embedded here but bottom line is that The University of Life should become part of everyone’s education. Unfortunately, we need to wait for this path to become “acceptable” in order for it to take hold, downturn or not.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Kathy – thanks for your comment. You make a great point that this is a confusing time for parents as well. I agree that governments need to create alternative training / educational programmes to offer workplace opportunities for less academically inclined young people. Universities should focus on life and job search skills for those that do go. Parents also will perhaps move away from the helicopter management of their kids which has been a criticism of certainly my generation.

      What needs to happen is employers and all of us for that matter, need to stop thinking that if a person has not been to university then they have fewer workplace skills than those who have a degree. Maybe before you need to pay your tuition fees!


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