Universities have become like Ikea – just follow the instructions

Opinion: there’s too much focus on ‘skills’ when students need to learn critical thinking

Down with the clutch, slip into gear, release the handbrake. Then ease off the left as you press on the right, finding that bite that sets the wheels in motion.

Certain undertakings have always been skills-oriented: drivers, for example, have a very clear sense of the precise routine it takes to get from point A to point B in one piece.

Drivers operate a specific piece of highly-engineered machinery, and their performance is measured entirely on their command of that machine.

Obviously, drivers should be smart, capable of reacting to the unforeseen, but a lot of that is down to instinct and experience.


You don’t need to understand the nuances of mechanics to operate a vehicle. I’ve no idea how combustion works, but I can drive a car just fine.

University degrees used to be about the development of critical thinking, about entering an academy wherein exploration was encouraged, and everything was subject to dispute and deconstruction.

Students were taught a very precious skill: to think. However, current socio-political attitudes determine the utility of skills by a sole factor: their value to commerce. And independent thought is a tricky commodity to shift.

Legislators have started viewing universities as instruments to be used for economic gain. What better way to attract foreign investment than with an educated workforce?

The depth of this pool doesn’t seem to matter, so long as it is wide. The great mockery of Ireland’s education system is the fact that many of the enterprises so reliant on our graduate pool refuse to pay their fair share to the exchequer – €13 billion would go a long way towards easing the pressure on educators and their institutions.

Universities, faced with little alternative to sustained underfunding, advertise programmes to students based on tangible returns: “enrol in this course to boost your earning potential.”

Students have every right to be conscious of their future prospects when making decisions on their education, but it is foolish to think the value of a programme can be quantitatively measured by a set of skills deemed attractive to an employer.

Customer satisfaction

This attitude has turned learners into customers, and consumer satisfaction is essential to such a model.

The mantra of many third-level institutions is now consistent: keep the students happy, or there’ll be consequences.

Student satisfaction is important, but it should not be privileged over a lecturer’s duty to challenge those under their care.

Students now tend to think that they can simply buy a degree, that their parchments are receipts owed to them by their universities and faculty

And it is about care, about ensuring different types of learners are supported, but doing so in a context where participants are forced out of their intellectual comfort zones.

The finest teachers I ever had the pleasure to learn from demanded utter commitment in their classrooms. Creativity and freedom of thought and expression were absolutely encouraged, but only if framed by rigour.

A lecturer should never lower their standards to the class; the class should raise their standards to the lecturer. Administrators are often dismissive of this type of talk, but might be excused for such, as they are typically otherwise engaged on the frontlines in the war of numbers.

Such attitudes have been passed on to students, who now tend to think that they can simply buy a degree, that their parchments are receipts owed to them by their universities and faculty.

This is to be expected; if students are treated like customers, and education sold to them like any commodity, they will respond accordingly.

Failure must always be a possibility; otherwise, students will increasingly equate satisfaction to ease of passage. “Avoid that one, her classes are hard,” is the new mindset.

This trend is most common when it comes to assessment, with many students expecting Ikea-like instructions to accompany each and every task.

Whatever happened to independent learning accompanied with a measure of expert guidance? Isn’t that how universities are supposed to function?

Degrees as commodities

There is a cycle here: students see degrees as commodities, and institutions are happy to oblige because of the aforementioned numbers game.

The State’s directive is clear: increase the graduate pool in strategic areas so that we can improve the façade needed to attract more business. Teach something that can be sold – and critical thinking is a hard sell in today’s market.

The value of a third-level education will continue to decline as long as we allow market forces to dictate what is privileged in lecture halls.

Skills, as they are being defined by the power-brokers of education, do not foster innovation or creativity, they merely refine an individual's ability to execute a pre-determined set of instructions

Of course, this issue isn’t exclusive to higher education: just look at the way second-level exams still operate in Ireland. This isn’t learning, it’s memory.

Students should be taught to think, and then encouraged to challenge everything they have learned.

The irony of the prevailing discourse is that it champions newspeak like “innovation” and “excellence”. But if a student is to truly innovate, if they are to achieve excellence, they need a pedagogical experience that has not been constrained by the requirements of would-be employers.

“Skills”, as they are being defined by the power-brokers of education, do not foster innovation or creativity, they merely refine an individual’s ability to execute a pre-determined set of instructions. Skills are reducing the ingenuity and creativity of future generations to mimicry and mechanisation. CBA – clutch, brake, accelerator.

Emphasis on skills

In the UK and Ireland, government strategies equate quality to mercantile measurements: both the UK's teaching excellence framework and the Irish national strategy for higher education prioritise enterprise and job creation.

I analysed the latter to determine words which appear in similar contexts to “skills”. The results paint a worrying trend – terms such as “ enterprise”, “OECD”, and “economy” loom large. The skills that one acquires through education should support these – they should not be driven by them.

The threat posed by an emphasis on skills as defined by enterprise is most prevalent in the arts and humanities.

Students in these disciplines learn how to read, how to write, how to interrogate and interpret, how to criticise and empathise.

These are all skills, incredibly valuable skills, yet they are increasingly at risk in a neoliberal world where something is only considered a skill if it holds explicit economic worth.

In markets driven by procedure and automation, employers need to be convinced of the merits of a degree from beyond Stem subjects. The reaction to this trend has not been a re-articulation of the value of a degree in the arts and humanities; rather, it has seen relevant fields forced towards the adoption of more “practical” components.

Digital skills

We see this in the emergence of domains like the digital humanities, an area wherein scholars and practitioners synthesise arts and humanities research with the affordances of computation.

Graduates of programmes that have adopted such techniques are naturally more appealing to employers, because they have a set of tangible digital skills which can be readily mapped to business processes.

But this isn’t how the worth of such graduates should be determined – tools and techniques can always be taught to a student who has a demonstrated capacity to acquire new knowledge. The same can be said of any discipline.

We want our students to have prospects, but above all else we want them to be thoughtful humans capable of critical thinking

Interdisciplinarity is more than a buzzword, and we should not allow it to be co-opted for the purposes of marketing. Systems that allow for liberal education are essential to the cultivation of diverse individuals and vibrant societies, and encouraging such a system requires disciplinary boundaries to be expanded.

Even in aforementioned fields like the digital humanities, digital skills are just a byproduct of extended exposure to computational methods. Yes, digital humanities graduates can handle web-based platforms, but that’s not why they should be seen as valuable.

The emphasis in interdisciplinary fields such as the digital humanities remains on critical thinking, on developing the ability for students to extrapolate the significance of data, be that cultural, economic or otherwise.

Critical thinkers

I myself lecture in the digital humanities, and yes, I show students how to use specific tools needed to accomplish specific tasks, but before doing so I make sure that they can question the legitimacy of the tool, and that they can interpret the products of such instruments in a critical and analytical fashion.

I’m fortunate to teach on a programme that privileges this ethos. We want our students to have prospects, but above all else we want them to be thoughtful humans capable of critical thinking.

Employers might prefer to see more of the tangible, but if you want someone who can examine operations from a novel perspective, it’s the critical thinker you’re after.

The truly worrying trend here is that our policymakers, and indeed, many of the commercial forces who influence our political figures, do not see the value of the latter.

In 2013, University College Cork awarded an alumni prize to Una Fox, vice president of technology client relations at Disney.

Una’s role encompasses everything from handling strategic data management to identifying next-generation technologies for enhancing the digital consumer experience. Her degree is a bachelor of arts in English and French literature.

If you can learn to read Joyce and Woolf, you can figure out just about anything.

James O'Sullivan (@jamescosullivan) is a lecturer in digital arts & humanities at University College Cork and is the founding editor of New Binary Press.josullivan.org