What is Higher Education? A Degree or Something Else


In public discourse, “higher education” is a term that differs from traditional schooling such as elementary, secondary, K-12 education. In America, higher education is often believed to be above and beyond traditional schooling into the academic domain of colleges and universities. Similar terms such as adult & continuing education, vocational training, and lifelong learning are often mentioned among educators, but most people don’t bother to define their differences. In the UK, other terms such as tertiary, permanent, further, and recurrent education add to its complexity.

The trouble in these discussions has less to do with the multiple terms of higher education, and more with the public sentiment. In other words, the way that multiple societies view higher education reveal some deep-seated opinions about the purposes of education and learning.  Opinions bounded by distinctions between required schooling versus optional education.

This leads to the question of whether the sole purpose of higher education is to acquire a college degree? A degree supposedly considered not required nor essential, but only an advancement or enhancement to a high-school diploma and required equivalents.  Also this degree is a form of credential that not only gets you a job, but also provides more opportunities to better careers.

However, current times challenge this typical mindset.  Examples show that a degree does not always transfer to getting a job, and additional credentials are no longer optional, but are seen as paramount to maintaining a career.

Lagging behind the times is the misrepresentation of the term higher education.  Given current circumstances, higher education is an outdated word alluding to a time when more education was an option of leisure. “Higher” still suggests a “lower,” just as “required schooling” implies “optional learning,” which colleges and universities used to originally represent.

In the next phase of this public discourse, education is no longer higher and learning is no longer optional.  Such a discussion invites a new mindset willing to remove linkages of trading credentials for better employment.  Instead, there is an acceptance that education and learning is a lifelong public pursuit where talents are discovered, ideas are supported, and vocations are created.

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5 responses to “What is Higher Education? A Degree or Something Else

  1. I am writing my PhD dissertation on changes in international policy on “tertiary education” since the 1980s, and I’m playing with an idea that I’d like to share for comments and responses.
    First, I am leaning toward the terms: primary, secondary and tertiary education to describe various levels of schooling, partly because of the consistency of the progression and partly because these terms do not suggest any particular purpose. There was indeed a time, not long ago, when secondary school was “optional.” Indeed, one of my parents did not attend secondary school (and was quite successful) and the other, and most of my aunts and uncles, never finished secondary school. But then, in developed countries, massificaiton and almost universalization of secondary school occured; just as massification of tertiary school is now happening. Tertiary education was for the few: the elite, the well-off, the academically gifted, the priveledged. It had little need to be vocationally oriented. There was little doubt that graduates would be employed and we expected that having a portion of the population well-educated was good for us all in other socio-political ways.
    Today we see in many developed countries, more than half the population enrolling in some form of tertiary education. Some countries are aiming for participation rates of 80 and 90% of the school-leaving age cohort! So, does this mean that tertiary education is now ‘necessary’?
    I am happy to live in a country where more than half the population has a tertiary certification. I’d love to see more people with degrees and certificates in everything from philosophy, history, political science, literature, chemistry, business management, materials engineering…….you name it! That’s a vibrant, and likely economically robust, culture to live in! But, having looked at the issue in some depth, I’m still not quite convinced it is necessary from a “job-skills” perspective in spite of how policy makers like to throw around the term “knowledge-based economy” as though it had some meaning. The ‘high skills’ jobs just aren’t there for the ‘high skills’ graduates that we are producing.
    You see, Tertiary education now IS necessary from an individual worker/learner’s perspective in terms of being more competititive and “robust” in the labour market. We’ve weathered some tough economic times in the last few decades and people want to protect their employability. But from a population-labour-perspective, it is NOT necessary: Increasing the number of graduates will not increase the number of jobs ‘appropriate’ for those graduates (to any substantial degree and in any reasonably responsive time).
    Now, having established the paradox that in terms of the labour market, tertiary education could be thought of as necessary for individuals but not for the population, let’s return to the purpose of tertiary education. We have started to think of the purposes of tertiary education primarily in terms of vocational preparation. Our conclusions above force us to look to resolve our paradox by looking for other purposes of tertiary education. Indeed, there are other purposes. But, tertiary education is no longer for the elite. It is increasingly for all. In those contexts, it is going to be increasingly important to task tertiary education with vocational preparation.
    It appears we’ve gone in a circle, discovering that tertiary education both is and is not necessary and finding no resolution of our paradox in broadening the purposes of tertiary education. To make it more complex, employers have complained that today’s graduates are not adequately “skilled” for the challenges they face in the workforce, and they call on tertiary education to solve this problem. This is where I am having a problem. You see, the skills they are looking for are general skills, and in some cases, dispostions. Employers are looking for problem solving skills, communication skills, literacy, numeracy, ability to work in groups, risk-taking positions, organizational skills, prioritization skills, tact, diplomacy, time management, and cultural sensitivity. If we are to assume that tertiary education should prepare people for the workforce. And if we are to accept that these are the skills that are being requested of the workforce, does this now mean that tertiary education should be in the business of teaching tact, risk taking and time management?
    I think not. Tertiary education, given the public and private expenditure, should be ‘higher\ and ‘education’ in that it should provide specific skills and knowledge over and above general competencies that can be gained through work experience, volunteer experience and generally just living in the world of people. Employers may want these skills, but they should be developed and demonstrated in other venues than in tertiary education.

    I welcome comments and critique.

    • Thanks for your comments and concerns about the proper role of “tertiary education.” Making distinctions between the many aspects of education whether its higher, vocational, or tertiary may help us educators, and I’m unsure whether the public community really knows the difference, or better still, even cares to know. What many appear concerned with is the common outcry: “What will education do for me?” Here is where I see an opportunity for educators to make a shift in the discussion. Instead of making distinctions about the kinds of education a person can pursue, how about looking at the broader scope regarding the kind of society that would support lifelong learning for all, regardless of its educative forms.

      Since you’re doing a dissertation on the role of ‘tertiary education,’ I would suggest looking at the Faure Report (1972) from UNESCO that promoted this notion of “lifelong education.” Although there are some economic and vocational competency arguments underpinning the report, this notion of lifelong education, I think, is a viable topic to revisit since it addresses educational and social reform. Perhaps even international policies are the keys to satisfying all of the education we may want and need.

  2. This is a very good topic. I currently teach in the School of Education at a college in Chicago, and a colleague and I were having a similar discussion the other day. We were discussing just how important it is for our students to have certain “predisposed and innate characteristics”, in addition to what we are teaching them in our program, to excel in their chosen careers, (which happens to be teaching). For instance, when they graduate and become teachers, how they run their classrooms, what they teach, and how they teach will not only be a reflection of what we taught them, but also a reflection of their own skill sets. So the question posed here, “What is Higher Education? A Degree or Something Else”, is a great question. In a sense, this question has prompted me to take a look at myself as an educator and assess if and how my job has changed over time. I do not believe in the “blank slate” theory, where our students come to us knowing nothing. They have knowledge and it my responsibility as an educator to tap into this knowledge and help them connect with the curriculum in ways that best fit their individual needs. The questions I have now are, 1) What is my role as educator? 2) If I stick only to the curriculum and focus on each student’s individual needs, am I really preparing them for the “real world” upon graduation, or am I merely setting the stage for disaster to happen? I hope I did not stray too far away from your initial intent of this blog.

    • Question 2 above should have read, “If I stick only to the curriculum and NOT focus on each student’s individual needs, am I really preparing them for the “real world” upon graduation, or am I merely setting the stage for disaster to happen?” Sorry.

  3. Pingback: What is Higher Education? A Degree or Something Else « Bachelor of Professional Studies Newsblog

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