Usefulness of a BA

Stephen Franks

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.

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