The Major Problem With University Degrees

Image by Mary Gober

After spending a solid decade in the university system (both as a student and a teacher), I couldn’t help but feel a strong sense of unease about its underlying problems.

These underlying problems became more and more apparent to me as I discussed them with other like-minded students, staff, and other people who cared about what was happening. And these problems could be summed up in one sentence …

Education has become a “commodity”.

Education has become a “product” to be consumed, rather than a learning process to engage with.

The typical student expects to sign up to their degree, attend, do the bare minimum, and get a job from it.

How on EARTH did this end up getting confused with “learning”?

This isn’t learning – this is complying.

I sincerely believe that “compliance” is one of the main things our university system is teaching students nowadays.

Universities have become big factories solely dedicated to pumping out “graduates” who have learned little and developed even less.

Instead, students have been further indoctrinated to comply – even if it’s complying to irrational and ineffective ideas.

And if you start questioning too many things (either as a student or teacher), you start unravelling the absurdity of the place.

An “accreditation” institution

In a sense, universities have become an “accreditation” institution, rubber stamping unprepared graduates, and delivering them into ordinary, entry-level bureaucratic jobs.

Society isn’t helping this trend. We are now reaching the stage where almost EVERYONE is encouraged to go and “get a degree”. And governments are leading the drive.

As a result of this, educational standards continue to drop. Pretty soon (and we might already be at this point), degrees will hold very little value if everyone has one.

Pretty soon (again, we’re almost there now), you will need several PhDs before you can differentiate yourself from the millions of other people with degrees. And you’ll need this even if you’re applying for some REALLY basic jobs – jobs that end up being vacated by people who never needed a degree to begin with.

This isn’t education. This has NOTHING to do with learning or attaining knowledge.

The “business” of education

As a result of all this, universities are dropping their game to the lowest common denominator to continue to survive. After all, the more students they can brainwash to attend, the more money they ultimately make. It’s almost like a corporation.

And then, upon the inevitable graduation, many students lose their way.

Not only have they not been prepared for their post-university “careers”, they often find that they’re in the wrong area altogether (and they’ve accumulated a big fat debt along with it).

So what happens next?

Universities encourage graduates to come back for some “further study” (either an Honours, Masters, PhD, or even just a different degree altogether). They reassure them that this will be the key to the life they want.

Obviously, it rarely is.

The answers most people are looking for aren’t going to be found in this kind of environment, no matter what the brochure says…

The solution

Education as a whole needs to be less about complying, accreditation, and “business” – and more about enabling people to think independently and critically.

Having an “educated” society means having people who are able to use these qualities to make the world a better place. And you can’t do that by training everyone to become the next generation of worker ants.

About Adam Johnstone

Adam Johnstone s the founder and writer of Encouragement from a Stranger. He believes in the importance of encouraging people to think, question things, and live life on their own terms. Or something like that...


  1. I have argued this with my parents, friends, teachers, strangers on the bus, since I was in 9th grade.

    It’s not all that new of a problem, and the biggest motivator is still making profit.
    You’d have to convince a large majority of “Worker ants” to do something about it, however they’ve been trained to “comply” with the system they were put in, so many probably wont.

    As long as the ultimate goal is to make profit, Education will always be bottle necked to “Half-assed” -or worse- status.

    Another problem is that a lot of people don’t have a clue what they want to do well into their 20’s or even 30’s (still being general here)
    Yet they are expected to spend countless of hours and money on getting a degree on something they’ve been pushed or steered against simply because they do not know what else to do.

    And this in turn probably comes from being led to believe in grade school that- ‘do what you are told and everything will be fine’.

  2. Yes, education is more like “training” now. My daughter is in the first year of Uni and has been told you basically have to get a Masters or Honours degree to get a decent job. Seems a bit silly.

    When I studied my degree years ago there was healthy debate about how educational vs practical the course was, and I am very glad it came down on the side of education – learning how to ask questions, see things from different perspectives, know what you need to know. If my course had focused on technical skills, few of them would be relevant any more.

    I don’t want higher education to be elitist, but I think the strategy of getting a higher percentage of the population to qualify for degrees will not necessarily help the community or individuals. Lots of worthwhile careers aren’t based on academic credentials.

    By having more graduates, it’s not like we’re raising the bar – we’re just keeping it at the same level (or lower) and letting more people jump over it! In the career game not everyone can come first…

  3. @Chris – thanks for your comments! Some good points there.

    @Carolyn – “[education is about] learning how to ask questions, see things from different perspectives, know what you need to know. If my course had focused on technical skills, few of them would be relevant any more.” Nicely said! Couldn’t agree more with you on that one!

  4. Couldn’t agree more! The system is busted. It’s about complying. Busy work takes over, and creativity goes there to die. How can such a fundamental change even begin to take root?

  5. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for reading, and thanks for your comment! I love the stuff you’re writing at your blog –

    Good question regarding “how can such a fundamental change even begin to take root?” I’ve mulled that one over for a while too. In short, I just don’t know.

    In part I feel as though many of the people that would actually benefit from such a change would probably feel reluctant in accepting these changes in the first place (thanks to years of preconditioning in early schooling).

    So if a fundamental change were to begin, it would have to start VERY early, I feel. And it would also have to be a change that parents and older generations would support (let’s face it – many of them are part of the reason we have the current absurd system in the first place!).

    What do you think, Mark?