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Credential crisis

Universities’ monopoly on certifying expertise is at risk, warns Tamson Pietsch

I recently attended a fascinating workshop on trust and authenticity in interwar Britain. In a period that witnessed the crumbling of old certainties and the appearance of new forms of mass culture, communication and politics, the question of what was real and who could be trusted became a pressing concern. In a world in which everything seemed in flux, what measures did people use to assess authenticity and whose truth-claims did they trust?

Such questions have a long history in the context of higher education. For much of the 19th century, a university degree stood as a decisive marker of class and cultural distinction. Teaching a classical and liberal (and often religious) curriculum, universities sought less to impart specialised knowledge than to cultivate the character and fashion the morals of the elite young men who would be leaders in politics and society.

But by the 1870s, revolutions in transport and communication, industrial development and intensified global trade had begun to refashion the established relationship between culture and power. Rapidly growing in importance were types of knowledge - scientific, technological and professional - that had traditionally sat outside the universities’ domain. Although still a marker of cultural attainment, the old generalist university degree had little attraction for those seeking a career in these expanding sectors. Not only did the universities face charges of irrelevance, they also found themselves in danger of losing their role as institutions of wide cultural, social and political influence.

Universities responded to these challenges by rethinking the kind of education they offered. Embracing their enemy, they expanded their curricula, reaching out to absorb the applied sciences and the professions and at the same time (if reluctantly in the case of Oxbridge) widening their franchise, admitting women and appealing to the growing middle classes. By 1914 it was possible to take university courses in, for example, commerce, law, medicine, engineering, chemistry, agriculture, veterinary studies and - somewhat infamously - brewing. Although professional bodies were sometimes as reluctant as universities to make this marriage, the social and cultural prestige a university degree imparted proved a powerful draw. These moves rescued universities from charges of irrelevance (and sometimes also financial crisis) and established them as the ultimate credentialising bodies in societies that were increasingly coming to value certifiable expertise.

However, although a degree now stood as evidence of the acquisition of a body of specialised knowledge, this was not all it represented. By embracing industry and the professions, universities sought also to exert an influence over them. As Arthur Smithells, a professor at the University of Leeds, argued in 1912, students undertaking professional and technical studies find in the university “not only the abundant springs of intellectual nourishment, but also the influences that will keep them expansive and wholesome”. University life “with its variety of individuals and interests and its broadening influence on the formation of character” would, suggested Alexander Bruce, the chancellor of the University of St Andrews in 1921, enable such students “to understand the problems of life, and to acquire the power of applying the principles of liberal culture to the subjects of (their) every-day occupation”.

Throughout the 20th century a degree served as a sign of both these educational objectives. On the one hand it credentialised content, marking the attainment of a certain standard of knowledge, and on the other it credentialised context, certifying the experience of what Smithells called “the close association in a place of learning, of people of widely different interests and destinies”.

But at the start of the 21st century this educational pact is beginning to look increasingly shaky. Indeed, in many ways universities today face a challenge not dissimilar to that which they confronted more than a century ago. New digital technologies have revolutionised not only the foundations of social and economic life but also access to information, making it available - at minimal cost - to anyone with an internet connection. No longer is attending a traditional university the only or even the best way to acquire the skills needed to succeed in the new economy. Together these developments pose a serious threat to universities’ monopoly on the credentialisation of knowledge.

Massive open online courses (Moocs) are one of the ways universities are responding. By running and certifying their own online courses, and in some cases making them credit-bearing, universities are once again embracing their enemy. Making such courses available at no or low cost to large numbers of people also enables universities to widen their educational franchise: supporting their claims (made to governments and the public alike) to be useful institutions that equip people to be workers in the knowledge economy. Lending their prestige to large-scale online courses may well enable universities to maintain their role as credentialisers of educational content. But it is not clear what will happen to that other aspect of 20th-century university education: the credentialisation of context. Do Moocs have the potential to serve as markers of the additional qualities - of character, integrity and breadth of interest - that we still profess to want from our leaders? And if they don’t, what does?

Here the questions we were asking at the workshop on interwar Britain hold particular salience. In this world of change, how will employers and potential students determine what is a good and what is a less good education? What measures will they use to assess the authenticity of knowledge and experience? Whose credentials will they trust?

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