Education level commonality

Continuing the pessimistic thoughts about an absolute lack of education level commonality between nations of diverse social, economic, educational and ethical standards, it makes sense to ponder whether there exist any solution to this problem.

Once again, it is important to mention the fact that Bologna degree equivalency, equalises all qualification at a given level, regardless of their underlying education. So, a UK public university Bachelor degree is equal to a Baccalaureate from a post-soviet-state privatised higher school, where teacher still “read” their classes from faded notebooks. The difference, other than fees, is in the quality of not just teaching but also demands placed upon students (real not theoretical workloads, effort, rewarding).

A popular expectation of commonality comes in the form of oh-so-favoured learning outcomes for the given discipline. In theory, everyone who follows the same standards in developing their degrees (there are a few benchmarks available forcing widespread copying&pasting which should = commonality), should deliver the same results, not only in subject content but also in the stuff left behind in student brains (knowledge, skills, etc). Having written many such documents (and having witnessed even more being created) I can safely say that this is a fallacy – the outcomes written down in many cases have little to do with the student (graduate) profile. Yes, it is the fault of an institution (or rather hundreds of them), yet here we come to the crux of the problem – there must be a force “out there” that is able to gauge the real results of an educational programme, without relying on over-exaggerated paperwork written to satisfy some oversight agency more interested in accounting piles of printed paper than checking the reality of what is being submitted.

Internationally, this is close to impossible. We will most likely have to rely on rankings of universities, yet these are skewed in the direction of science and grants and not knowledge forced into student heads.

At the national level, where we should begin this reform process, we already have working examples (even if at different levels). I am talking about state exams, conducted on a given day to everyone involved in the particular educational programme (most popular as high school exist exams). It would be interesting to see the grades achieved by all students of a given discipline in a nationwide exam with questions defined by a committee of discipline specialists, even if following the “learning outcomes” approach (but for a national degree type). Such an exam would provide an objective benchmark and allow for proper analysis of learning processes, while cutting down to size most idealists favouring academic independence.

Of course, this would only make sense if this “state” exam was defined by the state, administered by its representatives and had a system that kept all local “gurus” far away from it. And, oh please, no releasing of questions beforehand so that mnemonic cyborgs (sorry, students) can then memorise what is required 2 days before the exam, falsifying the results.

We would be looking at a new system. But first, there would be blood in the streets and classrooms as everyone in HE discovered how much (or little) their students (and other institution’s students) really know.

Degree equivalency is a lie

As I spend more and more time in various countries, working with institutions and people of different academic levels, and as I experience the immense universe of students (from the few best, brilliant minds to the dark-grey sea of mediocrity and hopelessness), I am coming to one depressing conclusion.

While Bologna is being hailed as the key building block of academic internationalisation, it brings with it an immense danger of confused degree equivalency – degrees of the same “level” are seen as “equal” allowing students entry onto higher qualifications regardless of their original education. So, a BA from Romania is the same as a UK degree. And so on…

The problem of mistaken degree equivalency is one of actual educational quality – the end result of the educational process that is not a set of generic learning outcomes but real knwoledge-in-the-head. Here lies the crux – just because someone receives a degree in a third-world state does not mean they have the same level of knowledge, experience, hell, even academic skills, as those coming from more academic nations. My favourite group are the Asian students who, in their thousands, pursue “MBA” degrees that have nothing in common with…real MBAs – those difficult degrees for senior managers taught by the best academics and not just addiitonal “Masters-type” qualifications of little impact on actual management knowledge. When combined with hundreds of weak institutions offering such “education” we can now define the MBA market as effectively “poisoned”. A second group are the third-world academics seeking glorious employment in Western universities based on degree-level-equivalency (level 8 NQF for PhDs) and using NARICs certificate as proof of competence (when, in reality, the NARIC certificate only talks about “being similar to a UK qualification” in terms of levels but not content and quality).

So why is there no real standard? Probably because expecting quality would reduce the recruitment of international students. Yet, it is illogical, as recruitment of substandard individuals holding laughably-low academic qualifications from countries that have low or none standards actually poisons the academic environment of the accepting institution… Yes, yes, everyone should have the same chances, bla bla bla, but some have spent more time, effort, intellect and money on gaining their education, only to find themselves surrounded by those… others. When does the destruction-through-mediocrity of all things sacred end?

True, there are systems for rejecting the worst offenders – for example UK unviersities have classifications of degrees by country, university, degree, from which they accept candidates (and from many candidates are rejected outright as detailed analysis exposes the sheer illusion of “education”), while NARIC does its job of analysing equivalencies, however I strongly believe that the sheer scale of possible graduate profiles is so huge that more controls are needed. I will remember for ever Nepalese graduates of a local “BA in Politics” (I was interviewing candidates in Kathmandu for entry onto my masters degree), who did not know the difference between democracy and totalitarianism, despite “you know sir, studying, hard, for three years on that, politics, you know, course”.

More differentiation, more control, more analysis, precise and extensive rejection tables, acceptance conditions and accept/reject decision logic trees are needed. Otherwise, those of us with a decent education will soon be surrounded with substandard competitors holding paper qualifications at same level. And thus, identification of proper and improper degrees will be left to the marketplace, but that is much too late in the production cycle. There is no real degree equivalency. UK and USA education beats all.