Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications they can carry into job interviews. That measure should express what they know, not where they learned it or how long it took them. They need a certification, not a degree.
As Murray notes, certification already exists for some professions, but he wants it extended to more occupations. On Murray’s account, reliance on degrees instead of certification is inefficient, because the necessary knowledge to pass a certification test could be acquired in less time and at lower cost than years at university, and works against equal opportunity, because the absence of any common metric for measuring knowledge relevant to many occupations means that employers fall back on high-prestige university brands as proxies for certification. According to Murray
Certification tests would disadvantage just one set of people: Students who have gotten into well-known traditional schools, but who are coasting through their years in college and would score poorly on a certification test. Disadvantaging them is an outcome devoutly to be wished.
As my post yesterday suggested, I am sympathetic to the idea of disaggregation in the higher education industry. This would not be about stripping universities of the power to certify and credential, but introducing more competition in the certification and credentialing market. I am also sympathetic to the idea of more and better information about university attributes and performance being available to potential students. Increased certification would do this. It would end the claims about ‘soft marking’, and probably alleviate the claims of ‘dumbing down’. There might still be assertions that the certification test is too easy, but it is unlikely to be because disgruntled academics believe universities are trying to put bums on lecture-theatre seats.
But like many basically good ideas, there are potential drawbacks to Murray’s proposal. Universities are about more than credentialing. My time in student politics taught me more and led to more in life than most of the subjects I took. I learnt a lot from older and wiser students, in reading what they suggested rather than what was on the official reading guide, and having them critique my views. I took some excellent subjects that were too idiosyncratic ever to include content likely to end up in a certification test.
There is a danger that ‘teaching to the test’ could diminish these things by focusing too heavily on certification results, though it may not. There are benefits to exam-based assessment, which let students do much as they please for most of the semester provided they produce a burst of highly-focused activity in the last six weeks or so before exams. And if the students who were only interested in the credential went to certification test schools instead, it would leave a student body that was more intellectually and socially engaged.