OPINION – Inflationary credentials in a shrunken market

Macau Business | November 2021

Keith Morrison Author and educationist

As Macau’s economic turndown persists, the thirst for higher education (HE) in Macau is barely slaked by the push to enrol as many students as possible, regardless of their actual, proven ability (or its lack). What kind of HE hub is Macau becoming: one which strives after excellence or a race to the bottom, enrolling anyone as long as they can pay? 

Maybe what we witness in Macau’s HE enrolments is students’ rational investment in human capital for economic utility and employability on a territory-wide, country-wide scale. Indeed, where life chances depend in large part on HE qualifications, then attracting, educating and qualifying students might be construed as reinforcing one of HE’s traditional functions, which is to train, sort and select students for future employment, restating would‑be, if fugitive, meritocracy.

But is this really only what HE in Macau should be doing and is doing? Is that all? Having HE as training and preparation for employment is only a fraction of what it is for, but its broader and deeper functions are being squeezed out in the press for acquiring employment skills.

The argument that the role of HE is to prepare graduates for employment or to service existing employment, however worthy, is partly specious in Macau. The number of graduates exceeds and is not commensurate with the number of graduate-level jobs in Macau. Hence we have credential inflation, in which, as the author Andrew Morrison (no relation) wrote in 2017: ‘paradoxically, a degree increasingly becomes an entry-level qualification to positions that did not formerly require them’. Like belly buttons, we all have them, and they don’t do much after we are born. Look at employment in Macau: low-grade service positions are filled by graduates with a Bachelor’s degree; middle-grade positions are filled by Master’s degree holders. In both cases, is the degree really necessary or simply a rite of passage, a sorting mechanism, a filter? To argue that what is learned on the degree is actually applicable to many jobs in Macau is a dishonest conceit; it is not. HE is complicit in this.

Or do we take a wider view, that what is learned in a degree is not simply, instrumentally, for a particular job, but is about training the mind or developing humanity, society and values? I wish. What we witness in HE is, rather, a narrowing of the ‘higher’ in ‘higher education’. Look at the view of HE as a market commodity, and the ridiculous, pathologically obsessive focus on outcomes-based everything in HE. This is coupled with endless surveys of student satisfaction that are often little more than a popularity vote on how much the teacher cossets, and is available to, students out of hours, or how generously he or she marks. Such a view of HE stifles the pressing considerations of values and what kind of people we need and want for society: critical thinkers, creative thinkers, committed to the betterment and social justice for all, considering what life is for, promoting equality and inclusion and their ramifications for societal development, and the involvement of all in securing a future that is infinitely richer than the pursuit of profit and the accumulation of wealth.

Here, in tiny Macau, is an opportunity for a much richer engagement with what HE should offer. Yes, put challenging, difficult, high level, demanding, cutting-edge subject and disciplinary knowledge on the agenda; very necessary. But don’t stop there; student engagement in thinking about values offers a richer prospect for humanity as it stands on the brink of existential threats from climate change, poverty, starvation, social injustice, disproportionate wealth in the hands of the few, global pestilence, social exclusion, war and conflicts across the world, consumption of resources to the point of global destruction, unimagined pollution, species extinction, the commodification and monetarisation of human life in all its abundance, and the relentless pursuit of profit regardless of the damage that it causes. And yet, what satisfies many of our Macau graduates? A tawdry, belly button certificate saying that they have taken a course which equips them to pick up a job. How mean is that?

HE is about liberating thinking for a better future, fulfilling a promise to educate in its richest and deepest sense, not simply to train a performing worker. It is about being, thinking and behaving more highly, having a conscience, not simply a matter of getting a few more skills.