How is a university supposed to teach students to do jobs that don’t exist yet? They can’t, in their present form. As a result, there is a growing disparity between the subjects taught at university and the competencies and skills that employers are looking for.
“Higher education is now Ground Zero for disruption,” wrote technology venture capitalist Todd Hixon, in a Forbes column. He and other tech entrepreneurs have seen a huge opportunity in alternative education services, providing low-cost, lightweight, on-demand learning solutions that will close the gap between what knowledge students possess, and what employers seek.
From the perspective of graduates, the fast pace of change means that knowledge that they acquired at university will fast become obsolete.
Learning can no longer stop after the first bachelor’s degree is acquired—it is now a lifelong pursuit that is driven by people’s passion rather that by their job function. A successful career will become more dependent on the adaptability to new circumstances and the ability to ‘work it out’ as the job demands—and sites like Degreed, Balloon and Parchment have already begun connecting skills courses to jobs for students and employers.
Last year, South Africa experienced an unprecedented wave of protests by university students. The cry for relief from the growing burden of fees united from the different campuses and converged on the Parliament building in Cape Town and the Union Buildings in Pretoria.
The first year of a medical science, actuarial sciences, business sciences or bachelor of commerce degree at the University of Cape Town can cost more than R60 000 per annum. Even a BA costs more than R50 000 per year. Students are also asked to pay steep up front fees, without necessarily being able to afford them. A 2015 poll by South African insurance firm Professional Provident Society found that 62% of students studying towards a profession-specific degree, such as engineering, medicine, law or accounting, thought that the cost of their degree was far too high.
This is not a uniquely South African phenomenon. Universities around the world have to contend with the fact that tuitions are increasing at unsustainable rates, and people are increasingly not considering this kind of investment in their education, worth the returns. This is because it is becoming more likely that it will give a graduate a huge amount of debt without guaranteeing a job placement. A 2012 poll by the Carnegie Corporation found that 80% of the surveyed Americans believed that a tertiary education is not worth its cost.
At the same time, digital innovation is changing the nature of the business world at an exponential rate, destroying old jobs and companies and replacing them with new ones at lightning speed. This means that new types of jobs are being created every day—for example, data scientists, app developers and cloud services specialists are job categories that didn’t exist 10 to 15 years ago, but are ubiquitous nowadays. Universities were not designed to cater to such a rapidly-changing environment.
Just as the exponential growth of new technologies is disrupting old models in music (iTunes), films (Netflix), and publishing (the Amazon Kindle), a new model of learning is emerging. It is harnessing the exponential rate at which new knowledge is being created online.
Hack Reactor is a San Francisco company that is utilising this new model, teaching software engineering and core web technologies in just three months. General Assembly is another, offering online courses in just about anything worth learning today, from business fundamentals to web development.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are springing up all over world, offering free and paid-for courses in virtually any discipline you can think of. Coursera, Khan Academy and Udemy are among some of the most reputable institutes offer university-quality, expert-curated lectures, quizzes and peer-reviewed assessments.
Although most people using MOOCs nowadays are people who have been to a traditional university and are looking to broaden their skills profile, in future students can opt to experiment with their tertiary education and target the exact kind of job that they are passionate about. MOOCs have the added benefit of allowing students to experience courses before making a bigger financial commitment at a university. There are far too many students who incur huge debt by starting a course, only to discover halfway through that it doesn’t interest them or has suddenly become obsolete. MOOCs lessen the pain of that misstep.
The University of Cape Town is pioneering a new MOOC that explores intersection of medicine, medical anthropology and the creative arts called Medicine and the Arts: Humanising Healthcare. The course was launched in March 2015 and became the first MOOC offered by a tertiary institution in Africa.
The University of Witwatersrand is also looking to expand into alternative education through a partnership with EdX, offering free courses on the MOOC platform to students in other African countries.
The emergence of these alternative education providers is changing the broadening educational ecosystem, and companies have to be responsive to that in order to better fill vacancies in vital positions in the future. In 2014, a survey by ManPower South Africa found that when compared to the 41 other countries surveyed, South Africa came in 4th from the bottom, with only 8% of employers reporting difficulty filling jobs. However, that number rose to 31% in 2015, closer to the global average of 38%. Yet most companies refused to waive their degree requirements, and still complained that the university graduates that applied for jobs were woefully under prepared. This is a profound disconnect that is resulting in companies realising the value of alternative education.
Given the evolution of the education marketplace, tomorrow’s graduates will increasingly come from alternative education institutes, which offer far better returns on investment than traditional universities1. The vetting processes for candidates have to change to reflect this new reality. There are new services springing up that allow companies to assess the full range of academic, professional and lifelong learning processes that candidates bring, to give an apples vs apples comparison of CVs2.
Many companies are also starting to recognise the value of lifelong learning processes, and are adapting their learning academies to reflect the value of MOOC and immersive learning. Yahoo now reimburses employees for the cost of verified courses completed on Coursera. The cosmetics company L'Oréal paid for 160 employees to complete a public speaking MOOC course in March 2015.
Companies also urgently need to rearticulate desired competencies when putting out job advertisements. Most jobs nowadays come with poorly-defined qualifications, such as ‘must have good communication skills’ or ‘must work well in group environments’. With respect, this doesn’t help a prospective employee figure out what they need to know in order to fulfil the requirements for the post. By defining competencies with nuance, employers will automatically be opening up the talent pool from which they employ to include alternative education providers while giving prospective employees better-defined paths to their desired careers. Rather than simply stating that applicants need a ‘requisite degree’ (which is restrictive), employers could provide a playlist of skills required for the job. Instead of stating that you want an experienced app developer, your jobs listing could state that it requires somebody with competency in XCode, Eclipse IDE, C# tools, object-oriented coding and memory management for mobile platforms. This way, a student or a high school pupil who wants to become an app developer can see what skills they lack, and quickly decide whether university or an alternative educator is the best place to get them.
The workplace physically, virtually and managerially will be have profound impact on an organisation’s ability to accelerate talent development. Digitally enabled working environment that reinforce a collaborative culture and that encourages new ways of working will be key to retaining talent3.
Finally, companies must look to foster partnerships with education technology providers. They can lower the talent acquisition and training costs by using the services of education start-ups. Companies like HackBright and DevBootCamp are successful partly because they partner with Facebook and other tech giants for internships and placements for graduates. The key to identify learning partnerships that are mutually beneficial to accelerate new learning. Pacific Gas & Electric has taken this partnership to the next level through its Power Pathways initiative. It is a huge collaboration between the company, local colleges, the public workforce development system, and unions, which identifies power utility skills likely to be needed in future—and provides them to the company employees.
South African companies that can successfully adapt their policies and practices to identify and recruit from the new talent pool that is arising from alternative education providers can sharply reduce their skills deficit, invest in talent that is passionate work they do, and may inadvertently stumble across our country’s future leaders. In the process, they will be disrupting their old talent acquisition and training models that are no longer applicable in a world of exponential change.