Rewards for all: wearing-out your mortarboard

It’s graduation season and not just on university campuses. There are more and more opportunities for young children to have their photograph taken wearing a mortarboard and gown and holding a fake scroll. This ritual provides recognition and praise for young children rather than threatening academic standards (!) although familiarity may breed contempt in the sense that going through a ritual event too often will diminish its inimitable appeal.

The use of graduation ceremonies for nursery children leaving to start School is an idea imported to the UK from kindergartens in America and it has been described as “a gesture, a fad” by Frank Furedi (University of Kent) as “we’re trying to make a big deal of even the relatively ordinary, trivial aspects of life. A nursery ‘graduation’ is a reward for being there and then leaving.” [iii]

There are other practices used to reward and encourage participation and enthusiasm in young children for the activity in question similar to approaches used in higher education (although the motiviation behind them may not always be the same). The images are examples of giving recognition to what to many people would be considered low-level achievement.

Image by: the author

Image by: the author

Image by: the author

Image by: the author

Awarding certificates for attendance.

It is no longer enough to put on a programme of activity and leave it up to the participants to decide whether to attend. Incentives or sanctions are used to ensure that learners are at least present in the room.

In HE there are regulations such as minimum attendance levels to pass a module, which seek to address non-participation. Such approaches may be aimed at reducing the risk of international students failing to meet visa and immigration rules or to encourage strategic learners to be present in class. Data reporting requirements, such as retention levels and achievement also influence this approach, as there is a positive correlation between attendance and achievement.[ii]

Excellent eating of lunches!

Clearly something to be celebrated.

There is a parallel here with the increase in ‘credentialism'[i]  in HE whereby the status of the formal outcome, e.g. a degree certificate, is of paramount importance. The link with employment, ‘academic output standards’ (to borrow a term from HEFCE) and providing value-for-money comes before the act of learning and acquiring knowledge.

The new Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, has spoken of the significant investment made by today’s graduates and the need to look at what they receive for this investment. It is notable that the same ‘investment’/’value-for-money’ argument is being made on behalf of students for the individual loans they take out as was the case under the public funding regime. In his speech to Universities UK on 1st July 2015:

“we can now start to assess the employment and earnings returns to education by matching Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Department for Education (DfE) education data with HMRC employment and income data and Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) benefits data.

Information of this sort will be incredibly useful for young people choosing courses or jobs that are most suitable for them. It will also enable education providers to assess their effectiveness in delivering positive labour market outcomes for their students.”

Although he acknowledges that ‘education is not just about wage returns’ there is this marker for potential future policy direction:

“Universities need to develop business-outreach into a core function that has influence over curriculum design.”

It remains to be seen how policy developments such as the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) will turn out, but the change in rhetoric to ‘outcome-focused’ metrics can only mean greater prominence for the final degree result.

Image by: the author

Image by: the author

This diagram suggests that the emphasis on outcomes only increases the likelihood that it is treated as a target in its own right, which will create further examples of universities ‘gaming’ the system to better their place in league tables. The only way out of this cycle would be if universities collectively “make a stand against global rankings, and stopped using them for promotional purposes”, as suggested by HEFCE’s Head of Research Policy, Steven Hill, which sounds like nothing less than a pipe dream in today’s consumerist climate.


[i] Gatenby, M. (2015) ‘Explainer: What is credentialism and is a degree more than just a piece of paper?’ The Conversation [online]. 27 May 2015. Available at: [Accessed 14 July 2015]

[ii] Macfarlane, B. (2013) ‘The Surveillance of Learning: A Critical Analysis of University Attendance Policies’ Higher Education Quarterly [online]. 12 July 2013. Available at: [Accessed 15 July 2015]

[iii] Parkinson, J. (2014) ‘Do four-year-olds need a graduation ceremony?’ BBC News Magazine [online]. 23 July 2014. Available at: [Accessed 14 July 2015]


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