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A case for diploma courses; Is the Bachelor's degree losing its value?

Diploma in Catering and Accommodation graduands celebrate during Nyeri National Polytechnic's 3rd graduation ceremony, on March 21, 2022. [Mose Sammy, Standard]

Not long ago, earning a bachelor’s degree was thought to be the surest way to flourish in the labour market. It was as prestigious as it was a status symbol. A mark of privilege. Today, however, with the changing dynamics in the labour market, the once revered bachelor’s degree seems to be losing its lustre. Its appeal. And there’s evidence all around us. What with the spiking numbers of degree holders without jobs, publicly discrediting their credentials, terming them as good as the dodo? Some moons ago, I met an acquittance who we attended the same university with working as a tout in one of the city’s routes. His disposition told a story of resignation.  

For the past decade or so, there has been a simmering debate on whether a bachelor’s degree still hold sway in the labour market. On who between a diploma holder and a university graduate is well prepped for the technical aspects of a given discipline. On the perception of why companies in various industries have lately been gravitating towards diploma holders at the expense of degree holders.

The truth is that whereas degree courses seek to be holistic and mould an all-around professional, diploma courses are highly specialised and focused. They also put a premium emphasis on practical as well as industry-specific skills compared to degree courses.

Many countries across the world, for instance, Australia, are opting for diplomas over degrees more, with some of the reasons being; they make you job-ready – faster, they can be completed in significantly less time, they are a fraction of the cost you’d pay for a degree course and provide better value for money, and they often have fewer and far less rigid pre-requisites.

Our economy does not have so enough jobs for our university graduates. Our folly as a country has been placing so much empasis on a university degree and forgetting that we ought to gear the training of our students towards meeting industry demands. Additionally, technical training has been viewed lowly. Only the best KCSE students join our universities. Those who “fail” are expected to attend technical and vocational training. In reality, however, these students graduate into the best skill pool employers are looking for, especially in the technical disciplines.

 So, what sets them apart (diploma holders vs degree holders)?

Degree:

A degree is a higher education qualification, where you choose a subject area as your major. It seeks to  offer a holistic training. The requirements for a degree can vary significantly, depending on the course you select. You need a time investment of at least four years as a full-time student to complete a degree course.

Pursuing a degree will benefit you in that; You might get a job easily depending on the course, slightly higher chances of earning a fair salary, again, depending on the course.

Diploma:

A diploma course would generally be more practical and hands-on. Perfect for technical courses. Diploma courses offer field-specific classes specially designed to equip you with the ESSENTIAL knowledge.

Benefits of pursuing a diploma include — Relatively short time to complete, lower costs of studies compared to a degree programme, flexible class schedules, focus on essential skills required in the field, practical knowledge, networking for future job opportunities, etc.

Is it true that some companies prefer diploma holders to degree holders? What is the reason?

Some employers prefer diploma holders to degree holders. Diploma graduates are more technical and are given the approach of how things work. They are therefore well positioned in industries that require their technical expertise and employers will be happy to have them onboard. The fields which are more affected by this dynamic are the technical/hands-on jobs, that require the technical expertise of the graduates. Some typical examples are plumbing, and construction. There are also many technical programmes in perhaps unexpected industries, like nursing, aviation, and criminal justice.

The difference between what our colleges are doing and what our universities are doing is pretty clear. Technical colleges tend to offer more hands-on learning and require fewer unnecessary classes than four-year colleges. This is what our colleges are absolutely getting it spot on.

What can universities take from colleges/Which gaps do universities need to bridge in affected discipines?   

The biggest benefit of a technical school vs. university is that technical school is inherently geared towards a career. Students graduate having already had hands-on practice in their desired field. Regular college can only sometimes offer students this through internships. Technical college will likely cost less. It will also lead to more concrete work opportunities than regular college. There is the caveat that these opportunities might lack variety, given that you’ll leave technical school highly skilled in one area.

Another benefit is that technical jobs tend to be evergreen. In other words, they are integral to society and can often withstand a recession. A plumber, for instance, is always in demand regardless of the present state of the economy. Relatedly, technical careers tend to have low rates of unemployment and higher career flexibility.

When it comes to actual classes, technical colleges cut straight to the chase. They don’t require that you take any superfluous courses that are irrelevant to your degree. Technical college programmes are focused on a specific field. So, the classes tend to be very small in order to give students personalised education. This kind of attention is rare at our public universities.

 The choice to go for a degree or a diploma should be informed by the discipline one wishes to pursue. For more technical courses, a diploma is more preferred if you really to master your craft. One can always then work their way up in a manner of speaking.

Universities offering technical course ought to find the right balance between theory and practicality to equip students better for the labour market. As things stand, there appears to be a big mismatch between the needs of the technical labour market and what universities are currently churning out.