Explainer: what is credentialism and is a degree more than just a piece of paper?

Worth what it’s written on? Students graduating by michaeljung/www.shutterstock.com

Gaining that required qualification to put on your CV is what counts to win a job in today’s “graduate economy”. On current trends, perhaps everyone will have a degree by the end of this century. Already in Finland, a remarkable 80% of young people are now going to university.

With so many people obtaining degree qualifications there are concerns that academic credentials are losing meaning and value. “Credentialism”, a concept coined by social scientists in the 1970s, is the reduction of qualifications to status conferring pieces of paper. It’s an ideology which puts formal educational credentials above other ways of understanding human potential and ability.

Credentialism is creeping back into the higher education debate as academics and the wider public attempt to make sense of the university system we now have. Students are asking if their degrees are worth the tuition fees they are expected to pay back as long-term loans. University academics bemoan the pressures of grade inflation and systems of teaching which resemble factories. Meanwhile, online learning and the growth of accredited university certificates through massive open online courses (MOOCs) on website like Coursera offer an alternative to traditional university enrolment.

These are all important issues to debate for the future of our universities. But they ignore the fundamental value of credentials in the workplace.

Let’s take the appalling story of Victorino Chua, a Filipino nurse working at Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport, who on May 19 received 25 life sentences for poisoning and murdering multiple patients. Investigations by police and journalists have raised questions about the validity of Chua’s nursing qualifications and his academic record when studying in the Philippines. There have been suspicions that someone may have sat exams in the place of Chua and his academic transcript may have been tampered with. Fake nursing degrees have been found on sale in the Philippines for as little as £20.

In a BBC interview, the director of nursing and midwifery for the hospital defended the range of recruitment “checks” that take place, but also admitted they rely on the credentials provided by universities and professional bodies, such as the Nursing and Midwifery Council, and cannot undertake their own detailed investigation into every employee.

The Stepping Hill case tells us that many people across the world are eager to obtain a university education as a passport to employment – and some go to desperate lengths to obtain the required certificate.

A basic requirement

A recent report by The Economist on the higher education system argued that a university degree is now the ultimate status symbol for entry into the middle classes across the world. It is the basic requirement for any professional occupation.

Difficult to choose between. Job candidates via BlueSkyImage/www.shutterstock.com

But the world of education is still rife with corruption. Tampering with educational records is unlikely to benefit anyone – and producing cheap forgeries of degree certificates is clearly a pathetic way to attempt to make a living.

This does not mean that certificates represent meaningless qualifications. There is still a so-called graduate premium in economic terms because employers value the added skills and abilities that graduates can demonstrate. In wider social terms, research suggests a university degree provides many non-market benefits to individuals and society, including longer life expectancy, more leisure time, greater social mobility, and a lower propensity to commit crime. These effects are difficult to measure but they change society for the better, and they matter more than almost anything else.

Beware of class prejudice

There is a danger that the concept of credentialism is a form of class prejudice in the way that it devalues the qualifications of those parts of the population, both at home and internationally, participating in higher education for the first time.

Personally, I welcome the growth of higher education. I would not want us to return to the elitist world of the early 20th century when less than 1% of the population had the opportunity to get a degree.

So we need to ensure that university is more than a rite of passage culminating in a piece of paper. It is the role of the academic profession and higher education institutions to create worthwhile learning experiences. No one should discourage young people for wanting to better their life chances. If students have unrealistic expectations about education they need more education – not less.

Formal qualifications and paper degree certificates are bureaucratic artefacts, but they are not to blame for credentialism. They are simple and convenient representations of something much bigger and more important.

The fact that education is a global status symbol shows how effective education has become at giving people opportunities in life. However, education needs to be shaped as a public good, not a private commodity, and it therefore needs to be carefully regulated by governments and professional associations. Without regulation education is vulnerable to abuse, and this can lead to tragic outcomes.

We need to celebrate the value of higher education and look to its possibilities before prematurely dismissing its growth as crude credentialism.