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Diplomas not the sole aim of higher education

JIAO LEI | 2020-12-24
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

University education should focus on enhancing students' abilities; diplomas will only be valuable on this basis. Photo: FILE

In June 2018, the Chinese Ministry of Education called for universities to focus on building a first-class undergraduate education, as this is the foundation for cultivating top-notch innovative talent. Unfortunately, some university students care about nothing but receiving a diploma upon graduation. This phenomenon is undoubtedly hindering the construction of a first-class undergraduate education. 
The root cause of the phenomenon is that some university students have a narrow understanding of how valuable their university education is. Their disproportionate valuation of diplomas has sparked a symbolic consumption trend in higher education, as students are interested merely in the symbolic value of academic credentials and ignore the true value underlying the piece of paper. 
Diploma first
Symbolic consumption evolves from the consumption of materials. Consumers no longer pay attention to commodity items only for their use value, but attach more importance to the symbolic value hidden behind the consumables. Consumerism has penetrated almost every sector of society, and higher education is no exception. The marketization of higher education demonstrates the penetration of consumerism.  
After being infiltrated by consumerism, higher education has gradually begun exhibiting features of symbolic consumption, as people have begun to pursue the symbolic meaning of university degrees. A chain linking university education, to a decent job, to high income, and on to high social status is an example of symbolic consumption in higher education. 
Consequently, some university students and their parents focus their attention only on the first link in the chain, the diploma. Due to this "diploma first" mindset, the real aim of higher education has been lost. 
Academic credentials are a testimony to the educational background of individuals and a token that represents their level of education. The scarcity of higher education resources makes it so that only a certain number of students throughout the nation—and even the world—have access to tertiary learning, so higher education is heavily screened. 
Needless to say, institutions of higher learning admit only those students with outstanding academic performance and abilities. As such, higher education diplomas have become synonymous with excellence and scarce resources. 
Therefore, employers regard university diplomas as the primary basis for talent selection. When society as a whole overemphasizes credentials, credentialism comes into being. It is an inevitable trend of social development that growing numbers of people will chase after tertiary qualifications. However, credentialism has changed the purpose behind the quest for higher education. Blindly stressing the symbolic value of diplomas while ignoring the fundamental value of higher education is the "original sin" of credentialism. 
Directly after the Chinese college entrance examinations resumed in 1977, university graduates were in short supply in relation to social demands of that time. Particularly at the beginning of the reform and opening up, large amounts of talent were needed. Holders of higher education diplomas were usually given preferential treatment, so people regarded higher education as an opportunity to change their destinies. 
In China, where the agricultural population accounted for more than two thirds of the total population, in addition to the entrenched idea that "he who excels in study can follow an official career," the thirst for university diplomas took deep root in people's minds, forming the bedrock for credentialism. 
Credentialism interacted with the 1999 national plan to increase university enrollments. A dozen decades after the university enrollment expansion plan was implemented, a host of students graduated from Chinese higher education. Since 2003, finding desirable employment has been a long-standing social issue for university students. 
The transition from elite to mass higher education has intensified people's obsession with tertiary credentials. As the expansion of higher education means an increase in the number of highly educated people, diplomas have devalued and the bar for employment has risen, hopes are pinned on educational higher degrees, such as postgraduate degrees, to acquire higher social status and better jobs. 
With the steady increase of graduates each year, employers have continuously imposed higher educational qualification requirements on candidates. The cruel job market is partly reflected in the fierce competition for diplomas, which encourages a blind chase of higher education's symbolic value. This alarming trend will dilute the essence of higher education. 
Essence of higher education
The primary function of higher education is to cultivate talent in all sectors of society by imparting advanced knowledge. To the educated, the value-added effect of higher education has been universally recognized. However, the added value is not limited to externalized, superficial values of the papers they obtain, which is exactly what credentialism emphasizes. Presently, credentialists are in an awkward situation due to the devaluation of diplomas, because the essential value of higher education has been misinterpreted. 
The overemphasis of diplomas' symbolic value (in symbolic consumption of higher education) has directed people's attention toward acquiring credentials, rather than the educational process. The essence of a diploma in higher education should be its use value, or the enhancement of students' abilities through knowledge teaching and professional training. 
Theoretically, diplomas should match the skillsets of their holders. For example, university graduates are usually regarded as more skilled than their counterparts from junior colleges. However, in reality, diplomas and abilities are not necessarily equivalent, particularly at present with the excessive symbolic value of academic qualifications. 
Result-oriented symbolic consumption overlooks the process of students' ability to improve, thus deviating from the aim of higher education to enhance students' abilities. Predictably, as more and more people gain access to higher education, it will be increasingly difficult to get preferential treatment simply due to the possession of a diploma. Rational value orientations are shifting towards improved abilities rather than the credentials themselves when people reevaluate higher education. 
Based on Western developed countries' experiences, a strong demand for higher education is sustainable, because education is the most effective way for individuals to upgrade their abilities. 
As higher education is popularized, the pursuit of higher education will allow individuals to engage in various types of work in society. The phenomenon we have observed, where some students dawdle away their time in university simply for the sake of getting the diploma, is a result of the narrow understanding of a diploma's use value, and an inflated symbolic value of higher education. It is risky to over-inflate the symbolic value of diplomas. Therefore, measures should be taken to reverse the trend of symbolic consumption in higher education, thereby building a first-class undergraduate education.
First, it is essential to rationally understand the value of higher education and curb excessive symbolic consumption in the sector, shifting the focus from diplomas' symbolic value to their ability to strengthen students' skillsets. If left unattended, the symbolic consumption trend will distort people's perception of the value of higher education as well as students' motivation to attend university. 
It is vital to correctly understand the relationship between the fundamental value (use value) and the symbolic value of higher education. The symbolic value relies on the foundational use value. Any commodity without a use value is valueless, with or without a symbolic value. Hence all people, particularly students and their parents, should prioritize the fundamental value of higher education, namely its enhancement of ability. 
University education should focus on enhancing students' abilities, as diplomas will only be valuable on this basis. Otherwise, the credentials will lose their functionality, and diplomas will not represent graduates' abilities to employees, thus rendering the education worthless. Credentialism has intensified the rivalry for diplomas, but it can hardly be eliminated from people's minds overnight. Nevertheless, there have been signs that innovative employers pay more attention to graduates’ employability, instead of blindly believing in symbolic diplomas. 
Moreover, the effect of a university education on students' abilities should not depend solely on their employment opportunities. Education is an extremely complicated undertaking. A university education should cultivate well-rounded students, to help them foster a noble spirit, innovative thinking, and professional skills, while deepening their knowledge. 
Higher education is more like nurturing qualified global citizens by shaping university students' comprehensive qualities than preparing them solely for the future job market. Their improved abilities should be substantive and integrated. 
Universities are not venues for vocational training. Utilitarian regulation will break university education further and further away from its spirit, and bring about a soulless surface-level success. Therefore it is inappropriate to attribute university students' employment difficulties to universities, or to place all their hopes there. Universities shouldn't disgrace their educational missions by orienting themselves towards students’ employment. 
In addition, institutions of higher learning should provide a "worthwhile" undergraduate education. A first-class undergraduate education should consider both social and individual needs. The mismatch between a university education and social and individual needs results from the failure of universities to realize the enhancement of skills suited to and needed by society. 
Thus universities should base themselves on improving students' abilities when carrying out educational and teaching reforms, refreshing the talent cultivation model, and strengthening alignment and integration within industries and markets to give higher education a larger role in guiding and serving society. While expanding the scale of education, they should also increase efforts to establish an internal quality guarantee system centered on students to provide them with worthwhile educational services.  
Jiao Lei is an associate research fellow from the Institute of Higher Education at South China University of Technology.