27. How to Get The Degree You Want, OR Are You A Fake?

Two top­ics are put through the min­cer here. The pre­lim­i­nary sec­tions are a dis­cus­sion about the nature, mean­ing and value of aca­d­e­mic qual­i­fi­ca­tions. The sec­ond part (the orig­i­nal post­ing) puts a spot­light on one uni­ver­sity (Green­wich Uni­ver­sity, Hawaii) which actu­ally dis­ap­peared, leav­ing its grad­u­ates stranded. I was one of the vic­tims. The great gawk­ing pub­lic of course cares lit­tle for col­laps­ing insti­tu­tions but has an end­less appetite for per­sonal scan­dal, so affected indi­vid­u­als usu­ally head for deep cover. I thought it was more use­ful to let the sun shine in since I’ve always been aller­gic to any­thing that looked like a con­ven­tional career any­way.

Some related mat­ters are also cov­ered else­where on this Inter­net site, Piss­ing On Every Lamp Post: the para­dox of schol­ar­ship; The Doctor’s Dilemma – Read­ing ver­sus Active Expe­ri­ence; Why Write a PhD?; with­drawal from PhD can­di­da­cies (Thor May, let­ter) in 1988 & 1996;let­ter of PhD com­ple­tion from the Uni­ver­sity of New­castle, 2010;dis­ser­ta­tion, Lan­guage Tan­gle, 2010 Arti­cles from this web­site are grad­u­ally also being copied to a blog called Thor’s Unwise Ideas

Part A : So does Thor May have a deep, dark secret?

Sorry folks, not the kind your are look­ing for any­how. For the record, here’s the con­ven­tional, squeaky clean aca­d­e­mic story as things stand in 2010 :

The writer’s cur­rent aca­d­e­mic qual­i­fi­ca­tions include a) a PhD in lan­guage teach­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity from the Uni­ver­sity of New­castle, NSW, Aus­tralia (awarded 2010); b) an Aus­tralian Mas­ter of Applied Lin­guis­tics from the same place; c) an RSA/Cambridge CTEFLA; d) a New Zealand Post­grad­u­ate Diploma of Teach­ing from Auck­land Sec­ondary Teach­ers Col­lege (nowa­days absorbed into the Uni­ver­sity of Auck­land, NZ); e) a Bach­e­lor of Arts degree from Vic­to­ria Uni­ver­sity of Welling­ton, New Zealand. These baubles have sup­ported a slow accu­mu­la­tion, since 1976, of real work­place knowl­edge in lan­guage teach­ing and lec­tur­ing lin­guis­tics. The stan­dard life-story epi­logue is that now, approach­ing 65, I should tod­dle off into the sun­set. No thanks. I’d prefer immor­tal­ity, but in the mean­time set­tle for teach­ing Eng­lish in cen­tral China to young ladies (see here, and here) plus 5km of inter­val train­ing a day, and lift­ing weights (see here).

Part B: So what is an aca­d­e­mic qual­i­fi­ca­tion any­way?

An aca­d­e­mic qual­i­fi­ca­tion is a piece of paper which affirms that you have nego­ti­ated a cer­tain cul­tural rit­ual. It entails a cul­tural tran­si­tion for the indi­vid­ual which he or she expects to con­fer cer­tain rights, usu­ally of employ­ment, and also usu­ally of social sta­tus. The gate­keep­ers of this cul­tural tran­si­tion attach con­di­tions to the award. The con­di­tions are, in effect, that accord­ing to their judge­ments you have inter­nal­ized a com­pendium of accepted knowl­edge and/or mas­tered some skills to a mea­sur­able stan­dard. There is an impli­ca­tion (stronger in some juris­dic­tions than oth­ers) that you have been able to exer­cise orga­nized self-dis­ci­pline in a way that will ren­der you use­ful in respon­si­ble posi­tions. There is NO seri­ous claim, except in research awards (where it is fre­quently false) that you are orig­i­nal, inno­v­a­tive, street smart, or gen­er­ally able to exceed the require­ments placed on any white-col­lar cubi­cle slave or faith­ful tech­ni­cian. The aca­d­e­mic qual­i­fi­ca­tion is said to be pro­tected by a moat of abil­ity and foot sol­diers of the intel­lec­tual elite to keep the peas­ants out. How­ever it is also quite clear that mas­ters of the gate keep­ers, more and more, want a high mon­e­tary fee to let you cross the draw-bridge.

I’ve been both a peas­ant and a minor sen­tinel on the gate. The busi­ness of judg­ing other peo­ple is always fraught, and in most areas of life we expect dis­agree­ment. For exam­ple, where divorce is eas­ily avail­able, 30–50% of mar­riages seem to fail, which is a pretty tart com­ment on the most impor­tant judge­ment many peo­ple will ever make. Yet some­how it is cul­tur­ally accepted that schools, col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties have solid author­ity to judge the apti­tudes, men­tal devel­op­ment and skill lev­els of the stu­dents who pass through them. After 34 years as a teacher and lec­turer, I know that these aca­d­e­mic judge­ments in both the “worst” and the “best” schools are dubi­ous, incon­sis­tent and not infre­quently warped by all kinds of extra­ne­ous fac­tors. Fur­ther, even the best schools con­tain plenty of drifters, while even the worst schools (in my expe­ri­ence) have a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of stu­dents and teach­ers who put their hearts into the enter­prise of learn­ing.

Aca­d­e­mic diplo­mas are not going to dis­ap­pear. They are essen­tial brand stamps on indi­vid­u­als in a com­plex world. Peo­ple buy branded soap pow­der, lip stick and motor cars because a) they think that the brand guar­an­tees them a cer­tain level and con­sis­tency of qual­ity; and b) the brand assoc­iates them with a cer­tain level of pres­tige. Earnest folk in con­sumer orga­ni­za­tions demon­strate time and again that this brand or that is not worth the money, but these rev­e­la­tions rarely do last­ing dam­age. There are vastly bet­ter funded mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als who devote their lives to pro­mot­ing the brand illu­sion. Some prod­ucts of course are good, but that is another issue.

And so it goes – as with soap pow­der, so it is with schools / col­leges / uni­ver­si­ties. Where any­body actu­ally both­ers to even look at your diploma, the over­whelm­ing odds are that they will care about the brand label, not the per­sonal sub­stance of knowl­edge, under­stand­ing or skill that lies behind it. They will yawn uncon­trol­lably if you sug­gest that they read your dis­ser­ta­tion. This fact is supremely true of employ­ers and their gate keep­ers (so-called HR or human rela­tions spe­cial­ists). Brand will also be what counts for those char­ac­ters you meet at par­ties, the per­son you sit next to on an aero­plane, per­haps even your friends and fam­ily. In short, the peo­ple who judge you are mostly igno­rant because they can’t pos­si­bly see inside your head, or they are busy, or they are not equipped to make a reli­able judge­ment, or they are lazy, or they don’t really care any­way. That’s life, and we are stuck with it.

It has not escaped the atten­tion of careerists, whether they be stu­dents, career aca­d­e­mics of a cer­tain kind, or the man­age­rial classes, that almost always brand mat­ters more than sub­stan­tive knowl­edge in schools / col­leges / uni­ver­si­ties. For these peo­ple the prag­matic “real­i­ties” are per­fectly clear. Their pub­lic vocab­u­lary is rich with adjec­tives denot­ing worth, solid­ity, integrity and so on. It is the uni­ver­sal lan­guage of bankers, and their pref­er­ence in archi­tec­ture fol­lows the same ratio­nale. Usu­ally they have the money, so usu­ally they get what they want, which is a mar­ketable but almost con­tent-free diploma.

A foot­note to this story: I hap­pen to be Aus­tralian, a mem­ber of one lucky, small nation (21 mil­lion peo­ple) which inherited the British edu­ca­tional model. That model was widely per­ceived to be home to good aca­d­e­mic brand names, so after a slow start the Aus­tralians have cashed out big on the label. So big that inter­na­tional stu­dents are sup­posed to be a major part of the econ­omy, about six­teen bil­lion dol­lars worth. We’ve all heard about the ‘oil curse’, the deep cor­rup­tion of nation states float­ing on crude. You could say that some­thing com­pa­ra­ble has been drag­ging Aus­tralian ter­tiary edu­ca­tion down the sink hole. East Asian and South Asian stu­dents, flee­ing the hope­lessly com­pro­mised insti­tu­tions of their home coun­tries, have headed to places like Aus­tralia in search of a cred­i­ble diploma. Alas, riven by sta­tus ambi­tions, drown­ing in huge loans, flail­ing in a lan­guage they barely com­pre­hend, but bear­ing gifts of irre­sistible cash, this tidal wave of Asian stu­dents has swamped and seduced what­ever pre­ten­sions to qual­ity the small Aus­tralian mar­ket may have had. The man­age­rial ‘real­ists’ have rubbed their hands in glee and pock­eted the dol­lars. The politi­cians have made fine speeches, tinged with a fear of aban­don­ment. The best of the local Aus­tralian stu­dents are bit­ter, their tol­er­ance of neigh­bour­ing cul­tures sorely tested. The invad­ing hordes, hav­ing tram­pled the vir­gin field, now begin to see it as lit­tle bet­ter than home and threaten a stam­pede for the exits. Sad story. I actu­ally live in China. I like my stu­dents. Why did it have to turn out this way …. ?

There is an implicit prob­lem with the com­mer­cial schema just described (regard­less of whether or not inter­na­tional stu­dents are involved). A much pro­moted argu­ment is that the ascen­dance finan­cial pri­or­i­ties need not under­mine edu­ca­tional pro­duc­tiv­ity. In nar­row instances this can be true. How­ever, taken across the spec­trum of edu­ca­tion and research it is not true. (This is a com­mon phe­nom­e­non in nature. To make a slightly bizarre anal­ogy, indi­vid­ual Amer­i­cans can be very tall, but Amer­i­cans as a national group have moved from being the tallest peo­ple in the world in the 1950s, to now being shorter than some West Euro­peans like the Dutch. The rea­son? Poorer qual­ity nutri­tion, result­ing from greater social inequal­i­ties across the nation). When it comes to the edu­ca­tion of cre­ative, inde­pen­dent thinkers, the intel­lec­tual cap­i­tal of a coun­try, no amount of adver­tis­ing and gloss can sub­sti­tute for the gen­uine thrill a moti­vated stu­dent gets from true inquiry, exper­i­ment and dis­cov­ery, includ­ing self-dis­cov­ery. This is sim­ply not the expe­ri­ence which comes out of an indus­trial degree mill.

Part C: Truths, and the illu­sions of truth

If our civ­i­liza­tions were all image and no sub­stance we would be back to swing­ing through the trees in a gen­er­a­tion or two. Some­one out there actu­ally has to have the real skill and knowl­edge to achieve pre­ci­sion engi­neer­ing. Some­one actu­ally does have to have the abil­ity to man­age the mind bend­ing logis­tics of a mod­ern city. Some­one actu­ally does need the age old wis­dom and skills of keep­ing war­ring egos in pro­duc­tive har­mony in a phe­nom­e­nally com­plex world. Above all, some­one does need the reck­less pas­sion (death to a safe career hope) of risk­ing all to truly fer­ret out ‘unknown unknowns’, truly chal­lenge con­ven­tional wis­dom, and actu­ally be there men­tally to deal with lit­tle green men when they land in their space­ships (or from an ear­lier age, to cope with uncouth, unimag­ined Euro­pean ghosts in big white ships with guns).

Strip away the adver­tis­ing spin, the mar­ket­ing bull­shit, and there are some remark­ably capa­ble peo­ple in our daily lives. Thank the gods for that. Some of the sav­iours of civ­i­liza­tion have nice diplo­mas, many of them don’t. With­out them we’d be impov­er­ished or dead very quickly. His­tory is lit­tered with the debris of demol­ished cul­tures where the able were spurned for fash­ion and pre­tence. These crit­i­cal peo­ple can be found at every level of a soci­ety, they are always in a minor­ity, and only a hand­ful of them ever get any­thing like a just reward for keep­ing the vast, par­a­sitic major­ity in cream cakes. As a teacher, I try to remem­ber them.

Hap­pi­ness is where you find it. There is a place in Hong Kong called Happy Val­ley where they run race horses, and another in Penn­syl­va­nia that boasts a uni­ver­sity. A third in New Zealand is threat­ened by an open cut coal mine. Hap­pi­ness in any of these places is surely acci­den­tal and prob­a­bly rare. Edu­ca­tion too is where you find it. There are count­less piles of brick and con­crete across the planet where ‘edu­ca­tion’ is on the name plate. Peo­ple go to these places and squat, wait­ing for edu­ca­tion like they wait for love. Hmm.

This post­ing had its gen­e­sis as a rem­i­nis­cence on a place of edu­ca­tion, a uni­ver­sity that went ‘bad’, that some­how became ‘fake’. What are we to think of the peo­ple who become entan­gled in failed insti­tu­tions, failed com­pa­nies, and failed coun­tries? It is really the flip side of those places that ‘suc­ceed’. The employ­ees of For­tune 500 com­pa­nies puff out their chests, florid Eng­lish gents at the height of Britain’s fleet­ing empire were per­suaded of the white man’s genetic supe­ri­or­ity, the brief glory of some ‘nation’ (read ‘team’) that scores a World Cup has slobs across the nation in drunken self-con­grat­u­la­tion. It’s noth­ing to the preen­ing on grad­u­a­tion day that goes on in places of edu­ca­tion, where peo­ple have squat­ted, wait­ing to be anointed.

Then in sad­der sce­nes, I’ve taught refugees from hell-holes on earth, raised from infancy with an apolo­getic stoop, a dif­fi­dence that comes from sur­viv­ing by col­lect­ing cig­a­rette butts from the gut­ters, or sub­mit­ting to bought sex to feed a hun­gry child, or a thou­sand other humil­i­a­tions. When they felt safe at last with me, a teacher in a strange land, they’d boast shyly that their home, Baby­lon or Ankor or Addis Ababa… had hosted kings of kings in other ages. Some­where, from a rumour of a rel­a­tive who became famous, a coun­try that was once rich, a beauty that had faded, they would find a wisp of suc­cour and self respect by asso­ci­a­tion. And so it goes for the mul­ti­tudes in pub­lic edu­ca­tion, good and bad, where the tools, instead of blood and iron, are castles in the air of words, end­lessly embroi­dered, for which we award scrolls declar­ing supe­rior truths and greater worth. Or not.

So what is truth? John Donne, the dean of London’s St Pauls Cathe­dral half a mil­len­nium ago, caught it in his poet’s voice: “On a huge hill / Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will / Reach her, about must and about must go, And what the hill’s sud­den­ness resists, win so.” Ah, but that’s a hard sell in an age of man­age­rial mis­sion state­ments.

Uni­ver­si­ties  (in par­tic­u­lar) should be fas­ci­nat­ing places where peo­ple ques­tion all that comes before them. Such a Shangri-La of minds is rarely met, even where the heady scents of ‘bril­liant rep­u­ta­tions’ hang with intox­i­cat­ing promise in the air. Some of us are fas­ci­nated by rare blooms on more bar­ren ground. At the moment I teach in a crum­bling tech­ni­cal col­lege in Cen­tral China where the unques­tioned assump­tion by most staff is that some hand-me-down infor­ma­tion is to be ladled into the brains of stu­dents, not ques­tioned (ques­tion­ing is close to being a pun­ish­able offence). For­tu­nately 20 year- old stu­dents, even if they are mostly not at the dizzy heights of an IQ league, can be coaxed into ques­tion­ing a sur­pris­ing num­ber of things. That is why I enjoy teach­ing, with its inher­ently sub­ver­sive pos­si­bil­i­ties.

How­ever, for those with insti­tu­tional expe­ri­ence, it will come as no sur­prise that the skep­tic is an unwel­come guest in most envi­ron­ments, not least schools / col­leges / uni­ver­si­ties. The dom­i­nant ambi­tion amongst mature adults every­where is to be a ‘respected veg­etable’, and that is a wish not com­pat­i­ble with a curi­ous mind. Nor is cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance very com­pat­i­ble with the veg­etable con­di­tion. The out­come, per­haps inevitable, is that places like uni­ver­si­ties tend to be rich breed­ing grounds for rit­ual, self-decep­tion, and mutual con­spir­a­cies of group-decep­tion.

Errol Mor­ris, in a five part New York Times series has recently cat­a­logued some per­mu­ta­tions of this theme through the phe­nom­e­non of the anosog­nosic patient who has a defi­ciency but denies its exis­tence; (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/23/the-anosognosics-dilemma-somethings-wrong-but-youll-never-know-what-it-is-part-1/). His drift is that our abil­ity to func­tion turns on a belief that we ‘know the truth’ about most things. In the spe­cial and dan­ger­ous mode of sci­ence seek­ing, some of the wise are are licensed to look for answers to ‘known unknowns’. Chaos and the uncon­trol­lable how­ever are pro­scribed from human minds by both biol­ogy and cul­ture. Cul­tures are implic­itly threat­ened by those who would seek out the ‘unknown unknowns’. Free spir­its with­out piety are seen as per­ilous to them­selves and all who know them.

The unknown unknowns, like dark mat­ter in the uni­verse, may be the greater part of future dan­ger and oppor­tu­nity, but it can’t be put in a course cur­ricu­lum, it can’t be jus­ti­fied in a so-called ‘research grant’, and it can’t be used as stu­dent bait to promise a five fig­ure income to grad­u­ates. That is, the great edu­ca­tional Potemkin facade, the one that mar­keters and brand spin­ners under­stand, is con­fig­ured for an assem­bly line of cloning old knowl­edge. It can never pre­pare us for the aliens com­ing over the hori­zon. Those of us, teach­ers and stu­dents, who toy with “use­less” ques­tions are never going to get much respect. But heck, with that pas­sion, we do have inter­est­ing lives.

Part D – The uni­ver­sity which dis­ap­peared

Some­time in 2004 the real sub­ject of this arti­cle, Green­wich Uni­ver­sity, Hawaii, van­ished into the ether forever with­out warn­ing or expla­na­tion. Appar­ently it took its aca­d­e­mic records to heaven too because a lot of peo­ple were left stranded on the beach. There is a new out­fit at almost the same address, Aka­mai Uni­ver­sity, and appar­ently run by the ex-pres­i­dent of Green­wich. Now, after a long silence, the web­site for www.greenwich.edu has reap­peared (April 2006) with an offer to provide tran­scripts under the stew­ard­ship of Aka­mai uni­ver­sity.

Well, I was one of the unhappy pun­ters left on the beach. A lot of work went into my ver­sion of a Green­wich degree, based on my ear­lier doc­toral research at an Aus­tralian uni­ver­sity. Obvi­ously though, I no longer had a viable pro­duct to sell in the mar­ket­place, where brand names are every­thing. I did the only thing pos­si­ble : a sec­ond Mas­ters degree at a safe loca­tion, the Uni­ver­sity of New­castle, Aus­tralia (a gov­ern­ment owned uni­ver­sity). This degree was awarded in July 2005 with high dis­tinc­tions in all sub­jects: see here for the tes­ta­mur and tran­script . Since then I’ve squir­reled away at yet another PhD dis­ser­ta­tion from the same place – an analy­sis of lan­guage teach­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity which has now been awarded (2010). The abstract of this the­sis can be seen here. Yeah, some dum­mies like me never learn to let this stuff be. In due course I’ll be a very well qual­i­fied corpse.

The com­mon label­ing and eval­u­a­tion of diplo­mas also needs some com­ment. Over my life­time, there has been a sev­ere infla­tion of mean­ing for such things. When I left high school at the end of 1961 for exam­ple, a pass was 50%, while 80% was pretty out­stand­ing. Today stu­dents grum­ble at a mere ‘B’ grade which is now often rated at 80% and rou­tinely awarded for very aver­age work. As to diplo­mas them­selves, the one year post­grad­u­ate teach­ing diploma I was awarded in 1976 would have the cur­rency today in many uni­ver­sity edu­ca­tion fac­ul­ties of a course­work Mas­ters degree. The one year of post­grad­u­ate work I did in 1978 at U. New­castle prior to tak­ing on a PhD involved course­work, sem­i­nar pre­sen­ta­tions and exten­sive research essays in the­o­ret­i­cal lin­guis­tics which were even reviewed by an exter­nal exam­iner at Mac­quarie Uni­ver­sity. It was all assessed at “first class hon­ours stan­dard” in a nice let­ter from the head of the depart­ment, but by reg­u­la­tions at the time, no diploma was awarded because I had grad­u­ated at another uni­ver­sity in New Zealand (talk about a rip off..). Today that kind of work would almost uni­ver­sally be awarded with a course­work Mas­ters qual­i­fi­ca­tion. In con­tem­po­rary terms then, mea­sured by real achieve­ment, I have four of these wretched Mas­ters things … but that doesn’t count in the mar­ket­place.

Part 4 – The orig­i­nal squeal of pain (2003)

Are you a fake? This was the engag­ing header on an e-mail which recently arrived in my mail­box. Well, I admit to a fake tooth, but I think the rest of me is as real as real can be. Truth to tell, the odds are good that the world in gen­eral doesn’t give a damn if I’m plas­tic, ivory or Mar­tian rock. Still, the writer had in mind a qual­i­fi­ca­tion from my resumé, a Mas­ters degree in For­mal and Applied Lin­guis­tics, granted by the august insti­tu­tion of Green­wich Uni­ver­sity, Hawaii. Therein lies a tale, and regard­less of my hap­less fate, per­haps a lesson for other hope­fuls. After all, many of the peo­ple who read these pages are engaged in that quest for the holy grail of our age, the mar­ketable degree, and prob­a­bly need as much advice as they can get.

Most peo­ple think they know what a uni­ver­sity is. Close study how­ever reveals a move­able feast. For employ­ers now uni­ver­si­ties are essen­tially brand labels which trade on their rep­u­ta­tion in exactly the same way as Rolex watches and expen­sive auto­mo­biles. Grotesquely over­priced brand labels too. The actual innards of the places, and espe­cially the innards of your courses or the­sis, don’t inter­est a whole lot of peo­ple. In the real world, that word ‘uni­ver­sity’ refers to an ever mul­ti­ply­ing vari­ety of insti­tu­tions, few of which have any­thing to do with the sem­i­nar­ies, then the gentlemen’s study retreats of Medieval Europe where it mostly began (at least the Occi­den­tal vari­ety). Even the bulk of state uni­ver­si­ties now are busi­ness enter­prises for whom “knowl­edge trans­mis­sion” is an indus­trial pro­duct.

For sev­eral decades a class of ‘non-tra­di­tional’ uni­ver­si­ties has been try­ing to emerge with vary­ing suc­cess. The class includes places that gen­uinely attempt to widen the paths to knowl­edge for more kinds of peo­ple by eval­u­at­ing their prior learn­ing, by being flex­i­ble about sub­jects and deliv­ery modes, and so on. Those are fine aims, but they don’t go down well with your aver­age 25 year-old per­son­nel clerk who is sort­ing through a stack of job appli­ca­tions. Nev­er­the­less the flex­i­bil­ity bat­tle is slowly being won through the back door as the big estab­lished insti­tu­tions, hun­gry for dol­lars, bend their own rules at the edges. The Inter­net is affect­ing this equa­tion dra­mat­i­cally as online courses become com­mon­place. At the outer edges of this money game of course are the degree mills, who will send you a diploma by return post instead of mak­ing you suck their milk­shakes for four years.

Now to my par­tic­u­lar stake in the name game. Green­wich Uni­ver­sity (the Cal­i­for­nian, not the Eng­lish one) has cer­tainly had a mixed his­tory and I’d think twice about engag­ing it in 2003. The hazy image cre­ates some job-get­ting prob­lems for me, but at 57 I’m reluc­tant to invest more time and scarce cash in aca­d­e­mic non­sense-games when there is so much else to do (in my case, to write) in a very short life. No, even now I think Green­wich is not into “sell­ing degrees” for jam, (though god knows, after a life­time in and around acad­e­mia, I’ve decided that most so-called accred­ited uni­ver­si­ties do just that with the huge num­ber of stu­dents who grad­u­ate know­ing sweet damn-all..). For what it is worth, here is the link to the Green­wich aca­d­e­mic require­ments page: http://www.greenwich.edu/gudegreq1.htm

Green­wich Uni­ver­sity was located in Hawaii when I found it. Later it moved to Nor­folk Island, which is a self-gov­ern­ing Aus­tralian ter­ri­tory, specif­i­cally of the state of New South Wales. The Nor­folk Island par­lia­ment granted Green­wich Uni­ver­sity an offi­cial char­ter of recog­ni­tion, which the NSW par­lia­ment was sort of obliged to rat­ify. This infu­ri­ated the reg­u­lar Aus­tralian uni­ver­si­ties, and there fol­lowed a pro­tracted period of bureau­cratic civil war. Evi­dently things finally became unpleas­ant enough for Green­wich to pack up and move to Cal­i­for­nia, where it began but aborted a move to seek accred­i­ta­tion there, and at last report had moved back to Hawaii. A recent per­sonal note from Dr. John Bear (attached) sug­gests that all this has taken its toll on Green­wich lead­er­ship. Let’s hope they get their act together again soon.

What fol­lows is a cau­tion­ary tale, a brief his­tory of my tan­gle with Green­wich Uni­ver­sity. It is actu­ally in the form of a crit­i­cism I shot off to an Inter­net site called The Mil­len­nium Project a few months ago (they haven’t replied). The Mil­len­nium Project claims to iden­tify and expose hum­bug.


I stum­bled on your site by acci­dent. You have done a nice hatchet job on Green­wich Uni­ver­sity (http://www.ratbags.com/rsoles/comment/greenwich.htm). I have no par­tic­u­lar brief for the place… except that I hold a Mas­ters from it, issued in 1994 when it was still Hawaii based. At least at that time it seemed like a rea­son­able option.

Why did I choose Green­wich? Well I had walked away from a Ph.D. can­di­dacy at the Uni­ver­sity of New­castle, NSW, after doing a lot of work on it, and pub­lish­ing a cou­ple of long papers (one 40 pages) in the Aus­tralian Jour­nal of Lin­guis­tics. I was also cheesed off, because with knowl­edge and expe­ri­ence well beyond a nor­mal MA (par­tic­u­larly so-called course­work MAs) I could still only lay claim to a BA.

In fact, after my pre­lim­i­nary post­grad’ year at New­castle, when the indi­ge­nes got Hon­ours degrees, the uni­ver­sity had said their reg­u­la­tions (at that time, 1978) had no pro­vi­sion for offer­ing any scrap of paper to out­siders (I’d come from Vic­to­ria Uni­ver­sity of Welling­ton, NZ). The head of depart­ment gave me a nice let­ter say­ing my work was “equiv­a­lent to first class Hon­ours stan­dard“. Per­sonal let­ters don’t hack a lot of kudos on the mean streets.

I went hunt­ing for a way to get my work accred­ited for an MA in some man­ner that had a mod­icum of cred­i­bil­ity, didn’t cost the earth (I was nearly broke), and wouldn’t involve point­less time serv­ing in some uni­ver­sity so they could add another post­grad­u­ate name to their books.. (most of the bas­tards play a game that says you come to their insti­tu­tion inno­cent of prior knowl­edge and can’t pos­si­bly use what­ever you’ve done before).

Bear’s Guide ( http://www.degree.net/) pointed me at Green­wich as about the best avail­able non-tra­di­tional uni­ver­sity which could be talked into assess­ing my work as it stood. I assem­bled a port­fo­lio. There was no addi­tional course­work. They hired my old super­vi­sor from the Uni­ver­sity of New­castle as adjunct fac­ulty. He knew me as well as any­one. He was Head of Depart­ment, and I had also taught the department’s courses part-time for sev­eral years. The Green­wich sys­tem required 30 cred­its for an MA. His approval gave me 43 cred­its (47 needed for a Ph.D.).

Now you are right that Green­wich doesn’t have great brand name recog­ni­tion. On the other hand, it does you no hon­our to smear by impli­ca­tion every­one who might be car­ry­ing a piece of paper from the place. I’m not ashamed of any­thing I’ve writ­ten, and it is all still on my very large web­site, The Pas­sion­ate Skep­tic, http://thormay.net.

The role and sta­tus of mod­ern uni­ver­si­ties is a vexed ques­tion. Most real research, espe­cially in the human­i­ties, can now be done with a good Inter­net con­nec­tion from any­where. Uni­ver­si­ties should be open col­lo­qui­ums of active minds. Those of us who have spent years around the places know that by and large this is not the case. What of their prod­ucts, the grad­u­ates? Some of course are impres­sive. But sadly most don’t have an orig­i­nal idea to bless them­selves with. Those shoals of 51% pass grad­u­ates, and even the plod­ding post­grad­u­ates who cau­ter­ize their brains with end­less quo­ta­tions, tod­dle out into the world anointed with the titles of their lofty insti­tu­tions. They even believe that their knowl­edge is spe­cial. Cer­tainly, employ­ers buy the brand name, and rarely inquire after the sub­stance of real achieve­ment. In fact, most of those grad­u­ates under­stood a frac­tion of what they read, and quickly for­get most of that. If you probe their insight, too often there is lit­tle to find. (See my lit­tle essay “Piss­ing On Every Lamp Post : the para­dox of schol­ar­ship” at http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/scholarship.html ).

So what are we to make of the vendetta between the Aus­tralian edu­ca­tional estab­lish­ment and Green­wich? I think this is best sep­a­rated from that class of events related to sports matches (your side/my side) and tribal war­fare. Green­wich is an insti­tu­tion; so are the Aus­tralian uni­ver­si­ties. Each are com­posed of imper­fect indi­vid­u­als, some of whom are well mean­ing and capa­ble, oth­ers dubi­ous. It may be that the prin­ci­pals of Green­wich fall into the dubi­ous cat­e­gory nowa­days. I don’t know. But insti­tu­tions have a con­stant stream of clients pass­ing through their doors, and those clients when mutated into grad­u­ates (or what­ever) deserve to be taken on their indi­vid­ual mer­its.

Well what about YOUR prospects? How do you get that ridicu­lous diploma, which you need for the employ­ers, for the least cost in the short­est time? Bear’s Guide (in spite of my unhappy expe­ri­ence) is still a good start­ing point. As with fash­ion every­where, the best option is all a mat­ter of taste and the com­pany you want to keep. If you wish to sign onto the indus­trial aca­d­e­mic tread­mills of the ‘great’ uni­ver­si­ties as a lec­turer, then you’ll need a nice brand name degree, and one done by research, not by course­work. If you want to set­tle into the mosh pit of the teach­ing pro­fes­sion, course­work degrees are fine. The bureau­crats usu­ally want ‘accred­ited’ degrees (though ‘accred­ited’ itself con­ceals a mul­ti­tude of sins). In either case, the lec­turer and the teacher, what you actu­ally under­stand (let alone cre­ate) won’t mat­ter much. If you just want to impress the man­ager of Jones’ Pickle Fac­tory, there’s a reputed sub­urb in Bei­jing where shady gents will sell you a degree from any place you fancy, and a pass­port too if you need that; (at one stage 80% of the immi­grant appli­ca­tions from Shang­hai to Aus­tralia fea­tured fake qual­i­fi­ca­tions..).

There is a chance of course that you are com­pletely crazy, and want to do real research; (I still have a sec­ond, half-writ­ten Ph.D. tucked away that will take at least 500 years to prop­erly develop..). In this case, you prob­a­bly don’t need to pay a uni­ver­sity any bribe at all, or waste your life grov­el­ling to their irrel­e­van­cies. Google is one of the most awe­some research tools ever invented. If you still want direct access to some very clever peo­ple, MIT (the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy) is in the process of putting all their course­work on the Inter­net — for free. And MIT is a very fancy brand name indeed.

All opin­ions expressed in Thor’s Unwise Ideas and The Pas­sion­ate Skep­tic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influ­ence, pros­e­ly­tize or per­suade oth­ers to a point of view. He is pleased if his writ­ing gen­er­ates reflec­tion in read­ers, either for or against the sen­ti­ment of the argu­ment.

“How to Get The Degree You Want OR Are You A Fake?” © copy­righted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2003


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