Empty-handed graduates.

I have had some experiences with applicants in job interviews lately that I find deeply worrying. I believe these experience express an ongoing development caused by ill-fated education policy in the past decade.

In the past months I have seen a number of fresh university grads with pretty good grades. People that had sure gone through their higher education career ranking well within the top 20%.

One question that I like to ask applicants is which subject within their studies they enjoyed the most. Most of them can easily answer that part of the question. Then I digg in a bit deeper and ask very basic questions about that subject. Questions that without doubt will belong to the most basic canon. I will ask a business informatics grad enthusiastic about data base systems to build a very basic SQL select statement. Or I will ask someone who enjoyed corporate finance the most to calculate the value of x euros after t periods at an interest rate of r. Or I will ask someone who enjoyed accounting the most to tell me the difference between the P&L level and the cash flow level or the concept of an accrual. Questions that you may find insulting due to simplicity.

More often than not the answer is an emtpy facial expression and the excuse that it has been a couple of months already since the applicant heard that lecture or took that exam.

Wait a minute: I asked about the favourite subject within your studies and you remember nothing but the name and a three-sentence outline from the bird’s eye view?

If this went along with bad grades for that subject, I sure would blame the applicant. However, these people had really good grades in general and especially in what they called their favourite subjects. How does that fit?

To me the only possible answer is this one: The education system has a fundamental problem.

My feeling is that lectures are generally good and do provide the opportunity to learn the fundamentals and motivations of the subject in a deep enough way to be able to really internalize and to develop and apply own problem solving strategies in the domain. However, the exams seem to mainly reward those that develop the ability to recite shallow patterns learned by heart. It is natural that students optimize towards the best possible grade with the lowest possible time invest. But it seems to me that after the shift to the bachelor/master system as part of the bologna process students in many fields of study are forced to take such optimizations to another level. Thus you cannot blame them for cursory learning.

It is possible to deliver contents and design exams in a different manner as most natural sciences show. In mathematics, no matter how many proofs you learned by heart: if there is just the slightest variation in the proposition to prove you would be screwed without deep understanding. In an exam you will always apply existing knowledge to new problems. If you pass such an exam you will have another couple of  tools and techniques to add to your tool box. It is a lot harder and more expensive to design and rate such exams and prepare students for them. But I believe it is possible for any subject.

A university owes students and the society funding it to educate in a way that produces lasting knowledge or at least deeply internalized problem solving competencies. It should worry us that there is an increasing number of young people that graduate empty-handed.