x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Decades of experience mean more than an old diploma

The frequent official insistence on the production of dusty old university degrees ignores the value, which can be much greater, of experience.

A few weeks ago, a young man asked me if I would be interested in helping him start a small business. I told him to investigate further and come back to me.

A little while later, he gave me a list of the documents I might have to produce to help him obtain the relevant licence. Among them was a copy of my university degree.

My degree is in a subject that is not related at all to the area of business in question. More importantly, though, is the fact that I was awarded the degree more than 40 years ago. What I studied then is of minimal value compared to the experience I have accumulated since. Yet, in some quarters, the certificate is accorded a considerable value.

Why is it that, for some purposes, the fact that one has obtained a degree - in whatever subject and however long ago - is rated more highly than one's record at work? For someone in their 20s, a degree or the lack of one may be as relevant as his or her subsequent work experience. But decades later?

I have heard of a job candidate who faced considerable problems being employed in the UAE because he didn't have a university degree. His 40 years of on-the-job experience in his field were not enough. Eventually, he had to produce transcripts of his high school record. This is utterly barmy.

Giving formal educational qualifications more weight than they genuinely deserve can have all sorts of adverse results.

One of those can be a simple failure to distinguish between degrees that are meaningful and those that are not. A degree in chemistry, for example, is more valuable, in my opinion, than one in a less-demanding topic such as "popular music studies" or "football studies" - both courses currently on offer at British universities.

Another consequence can be a failure to distinguish between institutions with different reputations. Surely a degree from Harvard, Oxford or the Sorbonne will mean more than one in a similar subject from a community college in the wilds of the US Midwest?

Then there is the question raised by the fact that some institutions grant degrees simply in exchange for money. And the question of whether checks are undertaken to ensure that, for example, a doctoral thesis has genuinely been written by the person who submits it.

It's no surprise that there is the occasional flurry of publicity in the UAE about fraudulent degree certificates, since so much depends on being able to produce one. However, little seems to be done to check whether these degrees are really worth anything.

In the UAE, as in so many countries, there's a drive to encourage more people to complete courses of higher education, almost regardless of what is actually studied.

One result is that thousands of people emerge from colleges and universities every year with degrees that are of little help in their working lives, and of little help to the country in filling the jobs that are actually open. More attention to the promotion of hands-on vocational and technical training is required, even if, at the end of it, the student comes away with only a diploma rather than a BA or a BSc.

Beyond that, let's see more attention paid to the value of experience and less to a piece of paper confirming that an individual studied a particular subject many years ago, even if they have by now forgotten everything they studied.

A friend of mine should have been returning to university in the UK this month, to start her second year, but she has decided not to do so. She has a clear idea of what she wants to do in her working life and she believes that university wasn't preparing her for that.

Instead, she's starting a job, at a low level, in a company that is focused on the work she wants to do. This way she will gain experience and make connections so that in a few years she will be well-placed to develop the career she wants.

We hear much about the value of continuing education, how one should keep learning throughout one's life.

That makes good sense. However, it requires a recognition that whether a person holds a degree should not be the only factor in judging their ability.

And it requires recognition that a degree is of declining significance as one amasses experience, particularly if the work you do isn't related to the subject you studied.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture