Welcome to www.theuniversityofplumbing.org, started 1st February 2003.
Degrees are overrated
"If they are not academic enough, they should go and learn plumbing"
How many times have you heard that with your cornflakes? This whispering campaign assumes plumbers (and other practical non-graduates) are intellectually less able than those with a degree. From our own experience many of us find that this is just not true. We are beginning to resist this continual low key advertising campaign promoting the "academic" by those who have been validated by the academic machine.
This site is dedicated to the degree-less, particularly those that have had their path through life made more difficult by the application of arbitrary tests, which do not suit their abilities. This isn't some extreme version of politically correct liberal crap. You will see from the excerpts from www.faxfn.org below that different types and amounts of ability should be recognised. We contend that "academic ability", as our education systems measure it, is not as valuable as it thought to be.
In the grading of abilities, the following hierarchy might be suggested
OK, it's simplistic but watch this site and we hope you will see that it is more sophisticated than the Radio 4 mentality, which divides the world into the academic and the stupid. This mentality also holds that academic ability (as measured by A levels and degrees) is the driver of the new economy.
This is a myth. An example of how it is reinforced is given in a description of the Egyptian economy in "Does Education Matter?" by Alison Wolf:
Put that with a comment from Tim Smit on innovation.gov.uk (see below)
KATIE LEDGER: Can you teach innovation?
29aug03: The Independent: Mo Mowlem condescends.
theuniversityofplumbing campaigns to support the non-graduates against the Radio 4 mentality. Now, we are beginning to see commentators that doubt the current target for 50% of the population getting a degree. In the Independent today (29th August 2003) Mo Molem has an article, "We don't need so many to go to university". She says:
Unfortunately Mo's piece fails to ask any questions on the benefits of university degrees. And "a job with real security" sounds like the old adage for those considered a bit dim: "He's good with his hands".
Perhaps she should ask what university did for David Beckham and remember that Mozart was a virtuoso pianist at the age of seven, some time before our current age of university entrance.
31aug03: Robert Hale: A plumber speaks.
I have been a plumber for over 20 years and I have worked in the UK and overseas. My father was also a plumber and I used to help him occasionally when I was at school. Because I didn't know what else to do I decided to become a plumber also and so, on my father's advice, I started a plumbing course at college when I was 17.
At the same time my father began to teach me the business. In my view college was a waste of time but my father's instruction was invaluable. My father taught me many practical aspects of the trade and helped me develop the necessary problem solving skills that good plumbers must have.
College mornings were devoted to practical skills (eg. we did lead work over and over again). In the afternoon we did academic work which interested only but a few of the students. The teachers were definitely bored with their jobs and perhaps this is why so little of the academic work stuck. It was three years wasted.
Under my father's instruction, I became a reasonable plumber within 5 years. I would have definitely learnt quicker if I had not had the distraction of this unnecessary college course.
Today, one of the problems with plumbing as a trade, is that there are so many cowboys about and the public have no easy was of telling who is a cowboy and who is not - although any "plumber" whose labour is too cheap must be suspect.
There ought to be greater regulation so that the public can get high quality work done and real plumbers can make a decent living.
On a more general note, here are a few relevant contributions taken from www.faxfn.org
20mar98: Roger Hind: Graduates with the social skills of a caterpillar.
The view from small business.
I have employed many college, university and TEC graduates and have found that they are generally institutionalised, overeducated, one-dimensional characters who for the main part have a chip on their shoulders because they feel as graduates they should automatically be placed at a management level. However, in reality, this is rarely the case.
How, as an employer, can we employ a student whose only knowledge of his or her chosen career is theory based with the exception of a 2 week placement in a remotely related field.
The students are taught by desk bound individuals whose knowledge is also theory based who have dipped their toe into the workplace only to decide it was actually hard work and actually they knew nothing and in a state of panic returned to the bosom of the education system to become tutors and lecturers.
How can industry take these people as serious candidates for management posts. Many of them have been institutionalised by being in education until they are 19, 20 or 21 and have the social skills of a caterpillar. Can they manage an iron on a uniform? Can they manage to stand close to the razor? All they seem to be able to manage is to go home.
Theoretical knowledge is only of any use when proportionately integrated with practical application. We do not need socially maladjusted 19-21 year olds, we need motivated school leavers, who are on the job trained and who are backed up with current and forward thinking theoretical knowledge.
I have few qualifications: 3 CSEs. I never bothered with exams at school because I new I was going into the army. Qualifications have never been a problem to me. I have simply lied about them when applying for a job. I have been offered every job I have ever applied for.
24jan99: Andy Eadie: Too posh to do a proper job?
I am the proprietor of a small business with ten employees. I have worked in the building industry for seventeen years and it has given me a good living. But nobody seems to want to learn a trade anymore.
I know the age of technology is here and manual work is less appealing than being sat at a computer but surely anyone that wants to do well in the construction industry must be better off getting a trade first and some hands-on experience.
The days of "get a trade and you'll be alright lad" may have gone (as a result of the status-consciousness amongst educators rejecting "working class" employment) but I think education is now geared to encourage students to go on to become graduates and keep out of employment as long as they can.
The game now seems to be to do your A-levels, do a degree, then a management course, then maybe a year out and then maybe (just maybe) try to find a job. But as far as I'm concerned twenty years of full-time education and a year of smoking pot in India are not good enough qualifications for a manager's job. (I know a pub where such people are waiting for their first £30K job to come along!)
Surely somebody who studies at the same time as doing a full-time job on the shop floor is better qualified by their mid-twenties. They may not be as academically qualified on paper but they will have a wealth of experience. These people can then go on to promotion or start their own business, doing further studying as required. This is the type of education we need: One that concentrates on the on-the-job learning for office juniors and apprentices instead of years out and fast-tracking.
If we do carry on with our present system of pushing as many as possible through "higher education", we have a society of "educated" people who are qualified for jobs that do not exist.
At the age of 33, I am considered to be young in the building trade because, since the mid 80's no major employers have taken on apprentices. The days of employers recruiting from schools have gone. It is now only a question of time before there is a major shortage in the construction industry.
I have tried to employ people but it is virtually impossible to find good tradesmen. This will only get worse as young people don't want to work in the building trade. It will probably only dawn on the general public when they start being charged exorbitant prices for the simplest of jobs. Then they will realise that even the cowboys can name their own price. Finding an honest tradesman will be a lifelong search.
25mar99: Ben Daglish: Golden rule for IT managers: "Never hire the graduate."
I'm lucky enough to be part of the 'lost boys' - the children who got the first generation microcomputers in their Christmas stockings. Once Uncle Clive had shown us the way with the ZX80, and before the market polarised into Playstations for the kids and PC's for the moms and dads, we were the proud owners of these marvellous machines - VIC 20s, Spectrums, Dragons, MSX's, et al. - that were just designed to be big programmable calculators that plugged into the television. You could play games, run spreadsheets, the whole caboodle - but the point was that you HAD to know exactly what the machine was doing in order to operate the damm thing at all. And if you wanted it to do anything other than run the five examples that came with the box, you had to program it yourself.
Suddenly magazines full of BASIC listings came flooding onto the market, and a new breed of programmer was born - the hacker. The country was full of 12 year olds in their bedrooms writing assembly code, dissasembling ROMs and doing things with the machine that the manufacturers thought were impossible. Up until this point (approx 1980), computer programmers were maths graduates who got to actually touch a terminal only after ten years of training. Computers were million-dollar boxes that were to be treated with respect.
While in the fourth year, I formed a company with a few friends and a teacher, and we started writing educational software. Afer sixth form, I went off to University to study computing. I lasted a year. Not only was the standard of programming primitive compared to the standard of the software we had been writing, but I realised that I had probably written more programs in 4 years at school than any of the lecturers had in their lives - and I owned my own computer, rather than a timeshare teminal.
So I left and joined the games industry, which was chock full of people like me. The sad thing is that 15 years later, those lecturers are still there, up and down the country. Of course they have progressed, but unfortunately the IT revolution has progressed faster. One of my golden rules, and certainly one that still holds true for many IT managers, is "Never hire the graduate". Three years away from the real world gives one a handicap that is very difficult to overcome. Not only that, but the additional handicap of 'computing' being adopted as part of the mainstream school curriculum means that todays 'creme-de-la-creme' are leaving campus not knowing how many bits are in a byte. Just think. Who imparted the 'necessary information' to the school teachers about what should be in the National Curriculum Computer Studies?
There actually was an 'A' level computer studies course at our local college when I was in the sixth form. I took the exam without going to any of the lessons, and got an 'A'. It was a joke - questions about hardware that was already extinct and programming problems that could have been solved by a chimpanzee. (In fact, I subsequently wrote a letter of complaint to the examining board. One of the requirements of the exam was to use a GOTO statement - a practice frowned upon by the cogniscenti.) The point is I, and everybody who owned one of the mighty micros, had learnt the subject by ourselves. We knew who George Boole was, because we had to know how to perform Boolean algebra just to try to fit "Death Invaders" into 16K.
Nowadays though, George is up there with William the Conqueror and Samuel Pepys - just another boring Dead White Male that the teachers drone on about. Boolean algebra is something you get lectures on in stuffy schoolrooms while you'd rather be outside playing football. And whereas my mighty micro used to boot up in 2 seconds and be READY>, Bill's machines take 3 minutes to boot and a degree in Computer Science to operate. Now that's progress.
faxfn Note 1: Ben Daglish was one of the early staff at Gremlin Graphics - a company which specialised in computer games started in Sheffield some ten years ago. It was recently reported as being sold for just over £22m.
faxfn Note 2: Computer Weekly has run several pieces on IT graduates. The issue of 18th March 1999 has three articles on its front page about the "serious mismatch between the skills taught to IT graduates in universities and the skills business needs". The Alliance for Information System Skills is reported as saying "IT graduates are not getting into IT jobs and non-IT graduates are".
03apr99: Computer Consultant: A slower writer wins too (eventually)
This computer consultant kindly agreed to do the Mary Lamb test (see above) for faxfn. He obtained the following times: 43.6 sec, 44.4 sec and 44 sec. According to the classification given above this puts him in the extremely slow category.
In the summer of 1976 he passed his Physics O-level (grade C) but failed English Language with the worst classification ('U' for unclassified). In 1976 he passed two further O-levels (Maths and Technical Drawing) but failed English Language and English Literature. He was awarded a CSE grade 3 in English Language.
On leaving school, he became a trainee aircraft technician with the RAF. During six years service he 'learnt a bit' including some data analysis. Following his time in the RAF, he attended technical college and obtained an ONC (with distinction) in Computer Studies. Results were awarded mostly by course work so writing speed was no problem.
This was followed by 4 years programming (COBAL, Basic, C etc) followed by a one year HNC course where in most of the topics he got merits. After another five years of writing software (and becoming a company director) he returned to education to do an MSc in Information Processing. This was not so successful: he scraped a pass. But the course did have several time limited exams that were the main means of assessment.
Since then he has worked for 4 years as a consultant/developer and clearly is a man of significant skill and talent. But still has no O-level in English.
His final comment was "I have been extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to carry on with an education. Careers guidance at school had me stitched up as a tyre fitter."
11oct99a: Find the reference: Handwriting style affects exam results.
Faxfn has been told of a paper published in the 1960's or 70's, possibly from someone at the Open University about writing style and examination performance.
The research took ten different answers to a hypothetical examination and wrote each of them in ten different handwriting styles. A panel of teachers were asked to mark the exam answers. They all had the one set of answers (i.e. copies of the original ten) but written in a different combinations of handwriting style. None of the panel knew the purpose of the project.
Analysis of the marks given showed that it was a significant advantage to have a certain style of writing that looked "adult". Surprisingly writing that was too neat was penalised as was (less surprisingly) scruffy writing.
Faxfn would like a reference to this work.
11oct99b: Faxfn Test Dept: Fast writers, with first class degrees.
Recent testing of Mary Lamb speeds. 19 seconds is the fastest ever tested.
* Geoff Kendall. He has indistinct but intelligent looking writing. He misses out many of the squiggles forming individual letters. But in examinations he printed and underlined key words, presumably to give the maximum effect for speed reading examiners.
23oct99a: Faxfn Test Dept: Three more tests. (the control?)
Having tested three people with first class degrees, faxfn staff did a random walk to a local shop. We found 3 young women: a schoolgirl doing A-levels, her aunt who is an undergraduate and their friend who is a deputy manager in a medium sized branch of a national chain of shops.
The schoolgirl had slow writing (a ML time of 30 sec), the undergraduate had standard speed writing (ML 27) and the deputy manager had very slow writing (ML 38). The deputy manager also thought that "exam panic" had been part of her problem.
These three writing speeds of "random walk" selected people (ML 27, 30, 38) are slower than the writing speeds of the three people selected for their first class degrees (ML 19, 19 and 25).
For the record the schoolgirl had 10 GCSEs grades ranging from B to E (the lowest grade of pass was F); the undergraduate had five A-levels grades ranging from B to D and the deputy manager's exam results had been poor (a few low grade GCSEs and O-levels). After school the deputy manager briefly trained as a nurse but dropped out. However, when the national chain was recruiting, she got past the initial rejection by her enthusiasm and persistence. Starting as a Retail Sales 1 she was promoted up several levels to Deputy Manager (Sales) in just over a year.
19aug99: Recommended Reading: "IQ did not contribute to GCSE performance"
This headline from a well-known broadsheet exaggerates the findings of the research reported in "Memory, IQ and Exam Performance" (by John Wilding, Elizabeth Valentine, Peter Marshall and Susan Cook. Educational Psychology, Vol 19, No 2, 1999). But a fuller quote still shows an interesting story:
"In combination, therefore, the two studies support the existence of a general memory ability, independent of IQ, and indicate that this ability accounts for between 10 and 20% of the variance in exam performance. Surprisingly Cattel IQ did not contribute to GCSE performance in either group. There was of course a large difference in both GCSE performance and Cattel IQ between the groups, but the multiple differences between them make it unwise to ascribe the differences in GCSE performance solely to Cattel IQ."(More later)
22aug99: Competencies or MBAs?: "You can teach a turkey to climb a tree, but it's easier to hire a squirrel."
An interesting booklet published by Hay/McBer Research Press in 1994 has come the notice of faxfn. "Competency Assessment Methods" by Lyle Spencer, David McClelland and Singe Spencer. Quotes:
"... an increasing number of studies were published which showed that traditional aptitude and knowledge content tests, as well as school grades and credentials:and
"While changing motives and traits is possible (McClelland and Winter, 1971), the process is lengthy, expensive and difficult. From a cost-effectiveness standpoint, the rule is 'hire for core motivation and trait characteristics, and develop knowledge and skills.' Most organisations do the reverse: they hire on the basis of educational credentials (MBAs from good schools) and assume the candidates can be indoctrinated with the appropriate motives and traits... in the words of one personnel manager, 'You can teach a turkey to climb a tree, but it's easier to hire a squirrel.'"You may like to order your copy from Hay/McBurr Research Press, 0207 730 0833.
24jul99a: Academic A: They learn then forget
(This academic teaches business studies to undergraduates and also teaches on an amber accredited MBA course.)
... [Undergraduates] may have passed exams but what are we testing? It's just regurgitation. They learn it six weeks before the exam and forget it afterwards. And they will end up doing jobs for which the course has no relevance...
(See in full Undergraduates lack initiative)
05sep99: Elizabeth Valentine: "Memory, IQ and Exam Performance" - a summary
MEMORY, IQ AND EXAMINATION PERFORMANCE
John Wilding and Elizabeth Valentine
Royal Holloway, University of London
Educational Psychology, vol.19, no.2, 1999, pp.117-132.
Relations between memory ability, intelligence (IQ) and GCSE performance were examined in two groups of 16-17 year-olds of above average intelligence, one consisting of members of Mensa. Memory (immediate and delayed, i.e. after a week) was tested on a wide range of materials (including faces, a story, a complex visual figure, words and numbers) and by self-rating. Intelligence was measured using the Cattell Culture Fair Test.
Evidence was obtained for a general memory factor independent of intelligence, in that rank orderings of performance were similar across the range of memory tasks and correlated with self-reported memory ability, with differences in IQ removed. Measures of memory ability were significantly related to GCSE performance whereas IQ was not. This suggests that GCSE require the reproduction of learned information rather than ability to solve novel problems. Self-rated memory performance was the only significant independent predictor of exam performance, indicating that other factors such as motivation, application, study skills and home background contribute substantially to exam success, once a certain degree of intelligence is reached.
Excerpts from the Article:
Abstract: Two studies explored individual differences in general memory ability and their relation to performance in a public examination taken at age 15-16 years in England and Wales. Five memory tasks were used to test both immediate memory and retention a week later. Rank orders of performance across the memory tasks, with IQ partialled out, were found to be significantly related, suggesting some general process. Separate indices of general memory ability for the immediate and delayed tests were highly correlated with each other and also with self-ratings of memory ability. Multiple regression revealed that self-rating of memory ability was the only significant independent predictor of examination performance. The results suggest that individual differences in memory ability account for between 10 and 20% of the variance in the performance in groups of above-average IQ. Possible reasons for the importance of memory in this context and implications for instructional methods are discussed.
The first study 'produced some evidence for a single underlying memory ability operating across a range of tasks. Which is independent of non-verbal IQ as measured by the Cattell Culture Fair Test...'
'Somewhat surprisingly, Cattell IQ was not significantly related to GCSE performance, but the three memory indices were. However, nearly 90% of the variance in examination performance remained unaccounted for, implying that factors such as motivation, application, study methods and home background are the main determinants of performance at this examination.'
'Both studies supported the existence of some general underlying memory factor on which individuals differ, demonstrated by agreement in the rankings over the five tasks...'
'All three memory measures (self-rating, immediate total memory and delayed total memory) were significantly related to GCSE performance. Multiple regression indicated in both studies that the only independent significant predictor was self-rating of memory ability.'
'The two studies support the existence of a general memory ability, independent of IQ, and indicate that this ability accounts for between 10 and 20% of the variance in GCSE performance. Surprisingly, Cattell IQ did not contribute to GCSE performance in either group.'
'One possible explanation is that the primary demands of this particular examination are to reproduce learned information rather that to solve novel problems. It may therefore be the case that once some threshold level of intelligence is exceeded, other factors such as motivation, study strategies and memory ability become the main determination of performance.'
23oct99b: Faxfn to Roger Greeff, Sheffield Hallam University: Selection for social work training.
Faxfn would like to ask you about the selection of students for courses on social work.
One of the criticisms made about nurse training is that initial selection process is increasingly based on "academic" qualifications and this does not necessarily measure the "competencies" required necessary for nursing.
You can see several entries in this section, which pose questions about the use of exams in selection. I understand that you also interview applicants to your courses but do not use any more formal competency assessment methods such as those mentioned in Spencer, Lyle and Spencer (see above).
These are our questions on student selection:
27oct99a: Faxfn to Elizabeth Valentine: Good memory, but no problem solver?
Thank you for your helping us with your interesting contribution.
We thought you might be able to answer a question prompted by your research: What relationship exists between "memory power" and "problem solving ability"?
A reader has suggested that, in his experience, there is at best a poor correlation between academic ability (measured by class of degree) and the ability to solve problems on the job. Has there been any research done that might throw light on this?
He also speculated that a good memory may be detrimental to problem solving because it encourages a "rote learning" mind set (i.e. Inappropriate stock solutions are remembered rather than new problems solved). Is this remotely possible?
Would this account for the claim made in the 1970s that the requirement that research students have good degrees meant that half the outstanding researchers were missed. Do you know anything about this too? We were told it concerned students that had an alternative entry to an American college (possibly Harvard).
Answers from Elizabeth Valentine:27oct99b: Faxfn to Professor Smithers: Exams and leafy suburbs
The Daily Telegraph has just reported
"UNIVERSITIES are to recruit students by postcode under a new system in which preferential treatment will be given to applicants from poorer backgrounds."and
"Alan Smithers, the professor of education at Liverpool University, condemned the move, saying: "There is an obvious danger that bright students with affluent parents will be discriminated against unfairly. Admission to higher education should be on the basis of ability, not quotas."Rising from this and other issues on faxfn we would like to ask:
Miss Sparks (see below) had some very hard words to say about Faxfn's publicity department for the advert in Private Eye. "I may have been a bit of an alky but I was no whore!", she said (rather shouted). Much grovelling on our part. We grovelled enough for her still to allow her piece to be posted. We hope the Advertising Standards Authority didn't notice.
19nov99b: Catherine Sparks: My Degree: 3 weeks work, 87 weeks drunk.
First I would like to say I am neither boasting about my performance at University or ashamed of it. It is just a fact that I achieved a degree by cramming for three weeks before my finals. Admittedly, a good short term memory plus very fast reading ability may have been an advantage, but I firmly believe a degree does not require three years protracted study. Especially in the field of Social Administration where so much of the whole course is geared around a reading list of about eight to ten "Bibles".
I did begin University with noble intentions of churning out every essay on schedule, spending every afternoon studying in the library, wearing cricket jumpers in university colours, embracing the cultural opportunities at an elite establishment, and finally graduating in the top ten of the year to loud applause. Sadly, ideals were soon compromised (on the first night at the Union bar - a binge which lasted seven days).
I revised my goals to three afternoons spent in the library and essays only matter of days late. This degenerated further and further until my whole day turned topsy turvey and I was arising at 4pm to watch Neighbours and proceed to the nearest bar and club etc. ending at around 6am. I soldiered bravely on, with no encouragement from anybody I may add, to finally graduating with a lower 2nd Class degree - such a grade well deserved you may say but I would like to add that in the entire year exactly half graduated with 2:1 and the remaining half graduated with 2:2. So I was no worse off than 50% of the serious minded studious graduates. So who was right? I had a bloody good three years and graduated with the minimum of effort and my degree had proved a vital and useful tool to further my career.
A valuable lesson I learnt from my degree was that it was possible to make the minimum of effort to achieve the maximum result.
Since graduating I have been employed by a prestigious and massive multiple retailer who held me in the highest esteem for my hard working and enthusiastic commitment. For the past five years I have run my own business which is very busy, popular and a credit to me.
I have always had a very strong work ethic, but have been disinterested in the academic and I firmly believe that educational qualifications should not be the main yardstick by which people are measured. If you can cut corners academically to reach the same goal this should always be done. I also believe that academic cheating is a good thing ( if you can get away with it) because it gets you through the educational process to areas of life and work where you can really prove your worth to an employer having overcome the "academic results" stumbling block.
Degrees are not a good measure of employability. Many graduates with "bad" degrees are excellent in the job situation and employers that stick rigidly to a "1st or 2:1 only" rule miss out on brilliant opportunities.
25jan03a: Found on innovation.gov.uk : Education constrains innovation
Living Innovation 2002, sponsored by Innovation.gov.uk, was launched at 1800 hours on June 18 with a one-hour satellite television programme from The Eden Project in Cornwall. Colin Prescot, Sue Wharton and Tim Smit spoke about what Innovation meant to them.
The main speakers are introduced here like this.
Here are some excerpts from the transcript (which can be found here).