Should universities certify knowledge?

In his usual provocative way, last week Charles Murray – promoting a new bookargued that

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.

8 thoughts on “Should universities certify knowledge?

  1. Sounds like competency-based testing to me. The trouble is that it assume that somehow, somewhere, there’s an approved statement of what people should know to be competent in a job. In fact there are few jobs where universally-acceptable statements of competency can be developed and these tend to be the ones like accounting and plumbing that already have professional certification/licensing.

    If an employer wants to know what a job applicant can do he should devise his own test. Much more reliable than having a bureaucracy like the old ANTA deciding what various occupations need to know.

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  2. Andrew has noted some overwhelming objections to the proposal.
    As soon as people find out the criteria for certification, ambitious students will rush there and ignore all the other things they should be getting out of the uni experience.
    An old Prof at Melb Uni, (long deceased) said that the results in Maths II at the old HSC or whateve it was called used to be a great predictor of success at uni, but only until the word got around.
    Another nasty story: a lecturer in Adelaide used to try to stimulate his students with some stuff straight from his or other people’s research. He noticed that this aroused signs of interest, or at least life, among the assembled ranks of students in the crowded lecture theatre. On inquiry he found it was just signs of concern about whether they would be examined on this stuff that was not in the notes that were distributed.

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  3. What happened to the idea that the most important lesson is the location of the library and how to use it. If I have one complaint it is losing access to the digital libraries (IEEE) when your not enrolled in a subject. Your taught how to use it and when you leave they take it away.

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  4. At what point in time would students sit such a test? I have interviewed supposed economics graduates who couldn’t answer elementary questions such as the conditions under which firms maximise profits (MR=MC)! Presumably they knew this at some stage of their degrees, so I’m not sure that a test sat more than a short while before an interview would be of much benefit to an employer.

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  5. Certification is de facto occupational licensing, used as a means of restricting entry into the occupation and enabling those certified to charge more for their services/labour. You don’t need a CPA to do tax returns.

    Outside the professions and the trades most employers don’t care about qualifications or certificates – they just want to know if you can do the job. The evidence they use is what you have done in the past, plus seeing for themselves during probation.

    I agree with Murray that “everyone in every occupation starts as an apprentice”, but that doesn’t equate to everyone in every occupation needs to be certified.

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  6. “Certification is de facto occupational licensing, used as a means of restricting entry into the occupation and enabling those certified to charge more for their services/labour.”

    This is certainly true when Unions (and groups like the Nurses and Midwives Board) determine the exams, but this can be avoided by only letting prospective employers determine the contents of the exams. They have a vested interest in getting as close to as many workers as they can productively use whilst keeping costs down. So they can make the test easier when they need more staff and do more on the job training, and harder when they can afford to.
    Teachers (tuition) can still work in this equation, though I’m not so certain formal Universities would.

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  7. “What happened to the idea that the most important lesson is the location of the library and how to use it.”

    Quite so. University isn’t school. The Oxbridge model, where students teach themselves, guided by tutors, and lectures are just an optional extra, is the best.

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  8. Certification has limits but universities have not tested those limits and are unlikely to do so any time soon. I say bring it on.

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