Qualifications, certifications, their origin and the way it was
Qualifications and certifications have become synonymous with quality. Before we trust those to serve us, we look for their tertiary qualifications or certifications for reassurance. Service providers also wave pieces of qualification and certification around to give the perception of credibility. It would appear that almost anything can be certified these days. I was surprised that there are organisations to certify home organisation, candle making, public speaking, etc. Society has become accustomed to the idea that paper qualification or certification somehow elevates the status of a person.
Purpose of qualifications and certifications
Higher education hadn’t always existed. It wasn’t long ago that generations of people never even finished school, let alone tertiary education. Financial planning existed long before it became a qualification or a certified profession. So what has happened to create society’s reliance on qualifications and certifications? How did these pieces of paper become a valued commodity? In my search to understand the purpose of higher education, I came to the conclusion that higher education exists for two reasons:
- To prepare students for employment
- To gather a group of high performing and skilled intellectual thinkers to solve real-world problems
Let’s explore each of these.
1. Preparing for employment
In the early years where employment involved working in manual labour-intensive industries such as agriculture and manufacturing, people learned the skills they need whilst working on the job. There was no need to learn even basic skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic. And if those basic skills were needed, primary school education was good enough.
As manual labour work became automated, society’s demands moved away from labour-intensive industries to the service industry. To fulfil these needs, employers look for people with different skill sets. In turn, those wanting to be employed look for places to learn and develop those skills.
Unlike manual labour, the service industry calls for specialisation in skills. Doctors, engineers, accountants and lawyers were areas in demand. Over time, sub-specialisation evolved in each of those areas as society became increasingly more sophisticated:
- Doctors: surgeon, paediatrician, obstetrician, psychiatrist
- Engineers: civil engineer, electrical engineer, software engineer, network engineer
- Accountants: book-keepers, forensic accountant, auditor, financial planner
- Lawyers: commercial lawyer, corporate lawyer, constitutional lawyer, taxation lawyer
Extension of basic skills
To cater to a more sophisticated society, the basic education provided in primary school had to be extended. Secondary education was created to extend those basic skills for those who wanted to learn. Soon, the years spent extending basic education at the secondary level needed a further extension as society demanded more sub-specialisations. Thus the creation of tertiary education.
Over time, we have seen further sub-specialisations of each sub-specialisation. The permutation of each ‘sub’ category will continue to drive the creation of more qualifications and certifications at the tertiary level and beyond. For as long as the society demands further sub-specialisations there will always be more courses created to service those demands.
2. Gathering of critical thinkers
What happens when a group of highly intelligent and critical thinkers get together? We have robust discussions of ideas. What would happen if we throw real-world problems at this group of people? Hopefully, the robust discussions lead to practical solutions to those problems. And where would we find such beings? Tertiary institution. It is, after all, the place where its people have grasped the basic skills taught in primary education, extended in secondary education and refined in the tertiary education.
A tertiary institution is a place where people go to refine their skills to become experts in their respective fields. They then bring their expertise to the group to solve difficult world problems. Or they might impart their expertise to create future experts. In theory, tertiary educated people discuss ideas that most people in the society will not be able to comprehend. Those with only a basic level of education will find most of these ideas and concepts alien, bizarre and impossible. But for the tertiary educated, these ideas and concepts are ground-breaking.
Tertiary education can be likened to ancient times when philosophers would gather to exchange ideas and concepts with each other. Except in those ancient times, discussions took place in an open forum rather than in an institutionalised setting.
Is the effect of qualifications and certifications slowly dwindling?
It would seem society is coming full-circle in its demand for tertiary qualified and certified workers. Just as society’s thirst for specialised skills drove the need for qualifications and certifications, the incessant reliance on qualifications and certifications is slowly eroding by society’s standards. Frustrated by sub-par results produced by supposedly highly qualified and certified people, society is now demanding something else other than pieces of paper displayed on the wall. It is not that society is demanding more. It is that society is demanding real evidence of better quality.
This demand is causing employers to rely less on the pieces of paper to evaluate a candidate’s credentials. Increasingly, employers are looking for evidence of real-life results and skills. They are looking for experience. This is especially prevalent in industries that call for results rather than demonstrated skills, such as IT, entrepreneurship, etc.
Information, knowledge and experience
If tertiary education existed for the purpose of making people employable, the changing demands of society have seen a shift in the desirability of tertiary qualifications. To fulfil society’s expectations, service providers also shift their employment requirements.
Information is one thing. Knowledge is another. And experience is something altogether different.
Information is just data and words put together in a coherent sense. Knowledge is putting that information to potential use. These two are provided by tertiary institutions. Tertiary education uses hypothetical exam questions as a way for students to use information learned and demonstrate their knowledge. But often this method is useless. The student has very limited time to come up with a solution. A second, more compelling reason is that these questions need to provide students with enough information to assess their knowledge. In the real world, half the problem is gathering sufficient information to apply the knowledge. The skills people need to get information is something that cannot be taught. This requires critical thinking and thinking outside the box. Such skills are cultivated over time and exposure to problem-solving. This is called experience.
Employers are now demanding different skill sets
In a world that is changing rapidly, employers now want candidates to hit the floor running. That is, they want candidates with experience. Whereas employers previously saw it as their duty to train up a candidate in the real world, increasingly employers are looking to tertiary educators to fulfil such a role. Increasingly too, employers are finding that the highest scoring candidates in an exam are not the best-performing employees due to the lack of critical thinking skills required in the real world.
This shift in responsibility to provide real-world experience is unfortunately not something that tertiary institutions can adequately provide.
Real-world training requires real-world transactions, something that is impossible for tertiary institutions to cater for without partnering with outside institutions.
The gathering of people is taking place elsewhere
Tertiary institutions were supposed to be a place for intellectual discussions to take place. It is where people were supposed to go to exchange ideas or to get access to experts in their fields. However, the reality is that such interactions are now happening in places outside of formal tertiary institutions. Increasingly, these discussions are taking place online – chat groups, podcasts, forums, etc. Or they are taking place in a less institutionalised setting such as meetups, conferences, seminars, meetings, workshops, etc. I am referring here to the common gathering of society generally, in the exchange of ideas, rather than the gathering of world-class leaders. The latter will still need an organised forum.
These informal gatherings are more effective because those who attend are not there because an institution has artificially assembled them to complete a pre-designed course or a degree. Instead, those who attend are genuinely interested in discussions and exchanging ideas. They are there to learn.
Tertiary institutions was a place for people to get information, just in case they need it in their jobs in the future. In the digital age, information is online and available at all times. Rather than just-in-case learning, busy people are now undertaking need-to-know learning.
Not everything needs a formal certification
The move towards certifying everything has led to its own demise. The more we certify, the less effective are the certificates. The volume of people seeking to be qualified and certified had compromised quality control. The result is highly qualified and certified people with varying qualities of skills. When almost any skill can be certified, a certificate is no longer a good indicator of quality and value.
There is also recognition that not every skill needs formal certifications. For example, teaching a child to talk or toilet training a toddler is skill-set many parents have, but we don’t see the need to certify parenting skills.
What this means for the future
Need-to-know learning will drive the demand for courses in the future. Learning involves 3 stages:
The first two have traditionally been provided by formal tertiary institutions, with the last stage being the responsibility of employers. In the future, this model looks uncertain. We can now readily access information online, making it widely available to anyone who needs to know. We gain knowledge by participating in discussions in informal places. People now create an individualised experience for ourselves as we take just-in-time action to apply the knowledge we have gained to the real world.
Just to be clear, I am not discrediting tertiary education, qualifications and certifications. I am definitely not saying that those with qualifications and certifications are incompetent fools. On the contrary, there are a lot of highly intelligent and capable people with certifications and qualifications. I am simply saying there are also a lot of highly intelligent and capable people who do not have qualifications and certifications. That is, the lack of qualifications and certifications does not automatically make someone incompetent or produce work of lesser quality.
What does any of this have to do with financial parenting?
This is a question for another post, but it is sufficient to say at this point that there are no qualifications or certifications for financial parenting. Don’t look to the school to teach your kids about money. A financial planner is not the solution to improving your children’s financial literacy. Don’t doubt your own ability. It’s not the piece of paper that will give you the confidence in financial parenting. The information is available, you can gain knowledge within your own community and you have the opportunity to gain first-hand experience in financial parenting every day if you choose to.