The wrong kind of education

Published in The National Business Review (Auckland), 8 February 2013

Should you ever wish to apply for a job where I will be the interviewer, this is the article you should read.

I am happy to reveal all the secrets about how I conduct job interviews safe in the knowledge that the vast majority of candidates will not read this column.

In fact, candidates would not have read anything I have ever written; they would not have the slightest idea about the job they are applying for; nor would they know anything about the organisation they believe should employ them.

That is because today’s graduates are brought up and educated to believe that their imagined intellectual brilliance and personal exceptionality will make up for everything else they are lacking. It’s the result of an education system that confers degrees and qualifications on young people without teaching them anything that would actually make them employable: knowledge, work ethics and some basic business skills.

To be clear, this is not a New Zealand problem. When I recruited for policy researchers in my previous jobs at think tanks in the UK and Australia, I encountered the same issues. Colleagues in Germany tell me they are experiencing the same problems.

So what difficult questions do I ask? They are questions that I believe should be the easiest to answer for anyone wishing to work in a public policy environment, or indeed for anyone with a university degree in any social science.

Usually I ask candidates which three political problems they would tackle first if they were the next New Zealand prime minister. Although there may be disagreement on priorities, anyone with an interest in politics should be able to at least identify three policy areas deserving attention. Unless you always skip straight to the sports or gossip pages, any regular newspaper reader should have no problem with this question, either.

The responses to this basic question are baffling. Most candidates struggle to come up with three policy challenges. Even if they do, it typically remains broad and fluffy. “The economy, perhaps?” “Something about climate change?” “Maybe the labour market?” One candidate recently said “Improving the healthcare system.” Positively surprised by such an unusual answer I asked what was wrong with it, only to hear from the candidate: “No, it’s by-and-large pretty okay.”

I also try to find out why the candidate studied the university courses they chose and what they learnt. Typically, I ask economists and political scientists whether there were any economists or political theorists they liked or who influenced their thinking. I’m largely unconcerned with who choose (within reason) but most candidates cannot even name one. Apparently it is possible to go through university and obtain Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in economics or political science without knowing any of the thinkers who shaped the respective disciplines. Maybe I’m old-fashioned but I find this shocking.

What is even more disturbing about these candidates is that their marks are usually very good. I have even interviewed economics PhDs who couldn’t name a single famous economist and who were blissfully unaware of any economic policy discussions.

lt is equally troubling that candidates’ lack of knowledge inversely correlates with their self-confidence. Cover letters, sometimes stretching over several pages, boast about the candidates’ “very unique [sic]” attributes, and their ability “to think outside the box.” To be blunt, I sometimes wish they could at least think within the box before trying to venture anywhere else. Apart from that, proper grammar and orthography would be a plus but seem to be optional.

One of my particularly nasty job interview habits is asking about achievements listed in the candidate’s CV. So, for example, whenever I read that a candidate speaks fluent or conversational German having learnt it for five years at school, I try it out straight away. Usually we quickly have to switch back to English in order not to end the job interview prematurely. ls it too much to be honest about your abilities in your CV?

Having to constantly endure these theoretically intelligent and well qualified, but unknowledgeable and underwhelming interviewees, it makes me wonder what has happened in education – primary, secondary, and tertiary – to produce this calibre of candidates.

It seems to have become fashionable to cotton-wool students at school and university. Teaching is no longer primarily about conveying knowledge but encouraging students to develop it themselves. The role of the teacher is no longer as an instructor but rather as a moderator or facilitator.

Young teachers are discouraged from frontal teaching. They cannot be overly concerned with correcting grammar and spelling mistakes, either. The correct use of language is probably supposed to enter the children’s brains by osmosis. Unfortunately, a lot of the time it just doesn’t.

At the same time that basic standards in core competencies such as reading, writing and maths decline, grades have bizarrely improved. Again, this is a phenomenon in many developed countries. As a result, one German university now only accepts students for medicine with the best possible school leaving qualification. More and more students achieve what was previously regarded as outstanding and exceptional marks.

Despite this grade inflation across the developed world, Western students are now outclassed by a large margin in the OECD’s PISA assessment by students from China, Singapore and Hong Kong. In maths, sciences, and reading these students leave their Western contemporaries far behind. Perhaps this is because of a greater emphasis in their cultures on hard work, precision and preparation that the West has lost?

Of course, there are still talented and well-educated people leaving our universities. In the end, I always managed to fill every job vacancy with good people. But the process of dealing with the other candidates is enough to make anyone despair.

We may be producing more graduates than ever and their formal qualifications look splendid on paper. But our education system increasingly produces graduates who lack everything except self-confidence. I am afraid that for most businesses that would hardly be enough.

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