What is the point of an education?

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I have a job offer for you. It is a really good one with some nice perks.

You get to read all sorts of books and spend hours each week debating with your co-workers. Productivity is optional, so long as you write us a few reports on what you have been reading. The hours are flexible, and you only need to come in for a few hours a week.

The salary, you ask? Oh, sorry, you will have to pay us. We will give you a nice certificate, though.

And the reading and debating? Strictly on topics we prescribe. Of course you can do more when you get home, but you will probably be too tired.

The job title? University student.

When it is broken down like this, it is a wonder there are any students left, and yet from 2000 to 2010 the number of students in university or college education in Vietnam has more than doubled, reaching almost 2.2 million. The price of university in monetary costs and students' time and effort is high. So what is the point of a university education?

Studies from the UK, Australia and the US have found that the biggest motivation for students is getting a degree that will help get them a good job. This seems to be true for Vietnamese students too.

They are right that university will lead to more money later. Research has shown that university in Vietnam offers a 17 percent return per year on the investment.

Learning Matters is a monthly column aiming to provide useful thoughts on learning and education in the hope of informing the broader discussion of educational development in Vietnam. The column is written by the Learning Skills Unit at RMIT International University Vietnam (www.lsuvietnam.wordpress.com).

Readers' feedback and questions can be sent to learningmatters@thanhniennews.com.

However, this fixation on what comes after university potentially holds students back from the full benefits of a university education, including the financial benefits.

Students tend to think that a degree gets them a job because of the knowledge acquired at university and the qualification they can show to employers. However, thinking and learning skills can easily be overlooked by those who see university as a means to an end.

Only a small amount of the information learned at university will be used in the workplace. Many students get jobs that are not directly related to their field of study. Even those who work in an area related to their degree do most of their learning on the job.

Even doctors, lawyers, accountants and engineers, who directly apply what they learn at university, must continue learning if they are to be successful or even competent.

Having a degree to put in your CV only helps so much. Unless that degree signals that the person holding it can do the job better, it is meaningless.

So if not simply the knowledge or qualification, what benefits do a university education bring to a graduate's working life?

A recent US study found that graduates with highly developed thinking skills were more likely to be employed, be married and have left home, and had lower levels of debt than graduates with less developed thinking skills. The degree by itself did not guarantee reward.

If a degree is to effectively signal that someone is worth employing, it needs to indicate that they have useful skills. Amongst other skills, a successful graduate will have learned how to think and learn to an advanced level.

So what does this mean for universities and students?

Universities need to increase the number of their graduates with strong thinking and learning skills, not just the number of degrees they hand out.

They can do this by teaching, testing and rewarding thinking rather than just memorizing. Lecturers should have students apply information from the course to new situations or assess students' analyses of competing ideas. Debates in class should be encouraged.

When students feel that universities are failing in this, they can take matters into their own hands. If their university does not demand thinking, it is still worthwhile for the student to practice themselves, as this is what will lead to later success.

Where memorization is all that is tested, thinking about the material is still the most efficient method of studying. Another US study found that consciously trying to memorize information had a negligible effect on retention, whereas thinking about it whether aiming to memorize it or not almost doubled recall.

Students, when a "Why?" enters your head, embrace it and see where it takes you.

Impractical and a waste of time? Quite the opposite. Thinking is the real key to success. After all, who has made a fortune by copying what has been done before?

By Sam Graham
The writer is from the Learning Skills Unit, RMIT International University Vietnam

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