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Your degree is a membership card

There is an interesting article in the Times Higher Education magazine this week, “We’ll always be there for you,” which discusses how US Universities are trying to support students after they graduate in an effort to reap the reward of increased donations. I’m sure anyone who has ever graduated from University gets the regular letters asking them for money, but the article got me wondering, seeing as I have recently been considering making such a donation, what do you really get back from your alma mater in return?

There are lots of points raised by the article, which is focussed on the American experience, but as the UK Higher Education sector goes through some turbulent times, it seems that alumni donations will be increasingly important as a means of top-up, or even core, funding. I am increasingly of the thinking that Universities need to play a bigger role in their respective communities – one way in which we could facilitate such a role is to try and give our graduates something back in return – the idea that your degree certificate is a “membership card, not a receipt”.

I have experience of two Universities, which have slightly different outlooks when it comes to undegraduates, despite being only about 15 miles apart, St. Andrews and Dundee. St. Andrews has a very broad UK and international student mix, with lots of non-Scottish domiciled UK students. These are students who scatter from St. Andrews quickly after graduation. I’m sure most go back at some point, and potter around the Himalayas,  have a drink in a bar that has changed it’s name three times since graduation and have a meal in a nice restaurant. I’m sure many go on to successful careers and give generously to the University. I don’t think graduates (I’m a double St. Andrews graduate) gets much else in return. (I should say there are alumni clubs for St. Andrews graduates throughout the world, but these don’t really offer much other than renunion opportunities. A genuine perk of graduating from St. Andrews is that you can get married in St. Salvator’s Chapel – it’s said they turned Madonna and Guy Ritchie down).

Dundee, I suspect offers as little for its graduates. The thing is that Dundee has a much more local intake. A large number of the students are local, from Dundee, Angus and the surrounding areas. We don’t have huge numbers of non-Scots UK students. We work in a different market place, for the most part, from St. Andrews. I have no firm data for this, but I suspect (based on the students I have taught) that many don’t go so far from Dundee after graduation. I also suspect that after picking up their degree they have little temptation to set foot back on campus. In both the St. Andrews and Dundee cases this seems a shame.

What could we offer? The most obvious thing would seem to be CPD. Most Universities a range of courses in continuing education for those that are interested, usually evening courses or the like, and most also run a range of language classes, and some music classes. You have to pay for all these, but maybe it would bolster numbers, and offer graduates some incentive to improve their skills if they got these free. More radical would be to offer graduates the opportunity to take any undergraduate or postgraduate taught course for free, with possibly a nominal fee for accreditation of any qualification they received – we could offer cut price Master’s courses, and increase part time courses to fit in better with our working graduates.

These might seems like loss leaders, but if graduates can take such courses and then recommend them to colleagues/bosses, it might be superb marketing. Moreover, for many types of courses CPD is becoming increasingly available, for free, online – just look at the MIT and Stanford examples, to give just a couple. Here the very rich US Universities are giving away content, and in some cases validation for free – this has the potential to hugely alter the outlook of HE in the future. This may be the way to go for Universities like St. Andrews – offer increased closed account online learning materials.

My overall feeling for UK HE is that we need to be more creative – if we want to develop a strong economy we need better skills, but are our graduates developing these to the best of their abilities? Are we giving them the skills that allow them to ‘create’ something – ideas, objects, code, or processes that can start new businesses? Maybe (maybe not) we can teach them to think, but can we teach them to ‘do’? Could we offer them more as members of our graduate club? If you get a degree in History, let us offer you a very cheap MSc conversion course in Computing; if you graduate in physics, let us convert you into a product design specialist with an MSc; if you are a brilliant economist, let us offer you intensive MA language skills for a year, so you can develop better international links.

Of course we could integrate some of this in normal degree courses, but the reality is, in Scotland at least, is that these will shrink from 4 to 3 years over time, and students have enough to be getting on with just to graduate in the first place. I say open up the Universities to graduates as ‘learning clubs’ Sure we should offer cheap use of facilities (gyms, libraries etc), but we are supposed to be about ideas and skills. Let’s try and continue to offer something for our graduates other than just a bit of paper, a bit of an education and a few years of memories and an endless stream of begging letters. Let us offer a lifelong service, a lifelong commitment to them, for choosing us. In the long term, we might get a few more donations, but it might also help to boost our economies, our skilled workforce and our social standing in our communities.

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