New Internationalist

Reaching For The Top

April 1983

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EDUCATION [image, unknown] The diploma disease

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Reaching for the top
Most students don’t enjoy school. They put up with it because education — for some at least — offers a clear route to the good life. But Angela Little argues that this single-minded pursuit of paper qualifications is a serious roadblock on the path to real learning.

It doesn’t matter whether you live in a poor country or a rich country, the facts are the same. Jobs are scarce. And to get one of the few jobs that are available you need an education.

In Mexico, university qualifications offer the only route to a good job. The 1968 Olympic games stadium is used as an examination hall for the university entrance exam. Competition is so fierce some 75,000 students pack the stadium every year to sit those exams. In Japan, even three-year olds take examinations for entrance to the best kindergartens – the first rung of the ladder to Tokyo University and the top jobs. In Sri Lanka, the private tuition business is booming. Familiar names like Aquinas , the Brighton Institute and Oxonia entice students to spend their after-school hours and weekends cramming for impending doom.

True, in some countries you need more than a qualification. For example, good social connections, correct political attitudes, a bright personality and acceptance of authority all help. But the minimum requirement is an educational qualification.

And as jobs become more scarce the premium on examinations and qualifications becomes a pathology: the Diploma Disease. In Malaysia they call it the ‘Paper Chase’. Elsewhere it’s known as ‘certificitis’ or, more pointedly, the educational rat-race. It comes to the same thing, chasing qualifications because they can pay off – in a job, an income, status and power. So what is wrong with all that, you might say? Isn’t it good that children and young persons everywhere should be keen on exams and qualifications? Doesn’t it mean they are taking their education seriously? Aren’t children, teachers and parents being entirely rational? Why call it a disease?

Two points are important here. The first is that it is a disease of society, not of individuals. It results from the way society is organised and from the way that income, status and power is distributed via education.

The other point to remember is that it is not the ‘paper chase’ in itself that causes the problem. It’s what students are not learning in their education that is the real problem.

One UK sixth-former summed up the problem succinctly: ‘Course work is tedious and the ever- present threat of exams removes the possibility of learning being enjoyable.’

Rather than liberating students and freeing them to think through and develop problems themselves, education has become in many classrooms a process of repression. Initiative, creativity and problem solving skills are all subjugated to the yoke of examinations. The tragedy is that students fail to develop precisely those skills which they most need when they leave the education system.

Students groomed for top positions in both Third World and industrialised countries have learned after 20 long privileged years in school that education is really about learning the rules, about pleasing examiners and about not straying from the ‘correct’ answer. Yet one could argue that the top jobs are precisely those which demand initiative, innovation solutions to old problems — like unemployment for example.

Initiative and innovation are also required for not-so-flashy but equally important jobs. Most Third World students with a few years of primary education will end up as subsistence farmers. And independence, innovation and initiative are at a premium for that farming work on which many Third World countries depend.

There are other consequences of the Diploma Disease too. First. as jobs become scarce employers have more difficulty coping with large numbers of applicants. For example, a personnel manager in Sri Lanka was looking for seven production assistants. To qualify they needed a British-style ‘0’ level with credits in physics, chemistry and maths — a very high level of qualification. There were 11,000 applicants.

‘I told the Board that it was an impossible situation’, the personnel manager says, ‘so they agreed to consider only those applicants with A levels’ (the next highest qualification). ‘That still left 300 and I interviewed the whole lot. Next time, though, we’ll want ‘A’ levels for this job.’

This process is called qualification inflation and it is happening everywhere —Britain as well as Sri Lanka It is not that higher qualifications are actually necessary to do the job. It is simply a mechanism which enables employers to cope with stress. If there are too many applicants all you need do is jack up the qualifications.

A second and perhaps more worrying consequence of the diploma disease is the very low status accorded to primary education. Building a new secondary school receives far more votes than improving teacher training for primary school teachers. Building a university for a few is far more prestigious than providing basic primary education for all.

So what can be done about it? How can education systems change so both individuals and society can master the critical problems which threaten the world today?

Whether capitalist or socialist, North or South, the best jobs are allocated on the basis of educational qualifications. Both kinds of society are bureaucratic when it comes to allocating jobs. And as far as the number of places available in higher education socialist states appear no less elitist than their capitalist neighbours. An average Tanzanian eleven-year old is just as concerned about his or her examinations as an average Kenyan eleven-year old. Maybe even more so since the chances of gaining a scarce secondary school place are even less.

Lower unemployment will probably reduce the pressure for qualifications. So too would narrowing the difference in social status and salary between jobs with high qualifications and jobs with low qualifications. Merit systems in the work-place (based on job performance rather than mere qualifications) may also prevent qualification-getting from becoming a ritual.

Curriculum and educational reforms in which students spend more time outside the classroom may also help create a balance between qualification and relevant learning. Countries as diverse as Tanzania, the Seychelles and Papua New Guinea are all experimenting with ideas which may break the chase for qualifications.

Ironically, however, the most effective cures to the diploma disease may lie with the diplomas themselves. The most well-intentioned curriculum or educational reform survives only to the extent that the examination or assessment which accompanies it also changes. The methods of finding out how well students are doing vary widely. However, the vast majority of exams and diplomas place a very high price on old-fashioned memory work of facts, details and information. And not a great deal else.

If rote memorisation is what examiners demand then that is what students will learn. If, on the other hand, exams test a student’s ability to solve real problems then maybe that is what students will learn. And even those who ‘fail’ the exam may end up with a different set of skills with which to face the world.

Angela Little is based at the University of Sussex and is co-producer
with Ron Dare, of a recent film on the ‘Diploma Disease.’

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This feature was published in the April 1983 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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