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Usefulness of a BA

Massey University is anonymously surveying employers to find what they look for from job-seekers with BA tickets.

No doubt the University will get eloquent argument in support of various arcane studies. Plus pleas for simple assurance of an ability to read perceptively, to think analytically and to write with clear meanings.

But there would be really simple advice to universities if employers were ruthlessly honest about the primary purpose in asking for degree qualifications. Degree courses are mainly quality sieves, set to filter for ability, plus certain virtues. A degree employer wants to increase the probablitiy that the holder is on the right hand side of the bell curve on qualities like intelligence, diligence, ability to persevere, and the ability to understand and to act on instructions.

Many look for specialist and vocational degrees where the subject knowledge is completely irrelevant, simply because of a view that the BA filter is too unreliable.

I would be surprised if any employers have a definitive interest in a BA degree holders' specialist knowledge even where they have decided that a BA is sufficient. It is perhaps nice to think that the graduate has acquired the polish of some minimum familiarity with our civilisation's accumulated self awareness. General knowledge may reflect and stimulate comprehension of events and people (perhaps?). But if the graduate proves to have that store of information it will commonly be a bonus, not the object of preferring a degree holder.

Employers may look to see what the BA  job-seeker has studied nevertheless. But more often than any teacher might want to know, it is probably just to see whether the degree contains anything that might have tested for rigour, objectivity, or ability to write. If all the subjects are of the social science/basket-weaving/tell-us-your feelings-and-fashionable-political-prejudices variety, or are otherwise notorious for low standards, the degree may be termed useless. But that is not because of greater need for the intrinsic knowledge of the subjects. It is simply that the choice of subjects is thought to be indicative of the fineness of the sieve. What is most likely to be taught and examined more rigorously?

Unfortunately the universities are paid to ignore advice to forget about fiddling with content, and  make the filter more reliable instead. Tightening up could be welcome to teachers who believe in the importance of their learning even if employers are not asking for more knowledge. But the 'bums on seats' payment regime makes it unprofitable to fail low quality students.

Theoretically, over the long term, schools, courses and universities with better reputation should attract more students who want to find work more easily, with better starting salaries. But reputation and differentiation require long term investment. There may not be enough people in many university positions who can afford to insist on such long term investment, and expect to be around to benefit.

Stephen Franks is principal of Wellington commercial and public law firm Franks and Ogilvie.

Comments and questions

My time at uni a BA was considered a bachelor of bugger all. However a degree certainly suggests a level of stickability and perseverance to any task. An ability to listen and analyse and possibly think outside the square.

It doesn't guarantee a position or high financial rewards.

For most positions the ultimate learning comes from life experience.

DO a trade - how often does a tradesman cost you less than $80 an hour - alot of white collar people will never earn that sort of money

Tradies earn every dollar they make but... A white collar person might point out that while the tradie might charge you more than $80 per hour, how much do they EARN per hour? How many of their hours per week are fully chargeable after taking into account downtime when you are waiting on the end of the phone for work, doing estimates/quotes, bookwork (GST/ACC/PAYE/FBT), compliance stuff incl Stats returns, travel time, balancing your cashflow, chasing folk who don't pay on time or not at all... not to mention the capital outlay for tools, the ute and other gear... the furrowed brow... the long days kneeling on a concrete floor looking up...

Compared to someone working on salary with sick leave, four weeks paid leave, bereavement leave and they get a payslip every month... the maths starts to even up...

On the other hand, I've always looked after the tradies who have worked for me - understanding their toil is part of the reason I am behind a desk.

Trades are interesting - the percentage of people owning a business is much higher in the fully qualified trade group than the degree holders (even B.Com). The take home pay for a tradie (fully qual) is pretty high. I'd be surprised if it was lower than BA - but expect lower than a specialist degree like CompSci.

The "bums on seats" model is under attack from govt threats to seriously penalize institutions that have too few passing, and refusing loans to those who fail too many papers. That move risks some perverse outcomes but seems to be working in the main.

One of the reasons why BA graduates were proactively sought for software training a while back is that some of the key capabilities developed was the capability to think, analyse and problem solve. I also remember Sir Bob Jones being quoted on this for similar reasons.
It is these meta capabilties that will be needed in any modern career and that will used and developed for the whole of ones life irrespective of the context.