The issue has been hotly debated recently as companies struggle to overcome challenges posed by the skills gap as well as shifting demographic trends and changing attitudes towards work and careers.
Across many sectors, large employers from Accenture, to IBM, to the US government have recently relaxed or even entirely removed requirements for new hires to hold degrees.
Is this the beginning of a trend that will eventually see traditional university and college degree courses fade from relevance? Or is it simply a short-term reaction to seismic changes brought about by highly disruptive factors such as the global pandemic or the ongoing skills crisis?
Why Are Fewer Companies Bothered About Degrees?
According to a recent study carried out by online learning specialists Coursera, less than half of UK graduates use the skills they learned in their degree once they enter the world of work.
In a recent conversation I had with Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda, he told me that the issues facing higher education vary dramatically by region. For example, in the US and much of the western world, populations are aging, and traditional methods of funding education – such as government-backed student loans – are being put under pressure by economic slowdown and other factors.
On the other hand, in regions such as Africa, India, and Malaysia, much younger populations are stretching the ability of education infrastructure to cope, and providers face challenges around scaling their capacity to meet a fast growth in demand.
At both ends of the spectrum, this means that potential members of the workforce – particularly in positions that require education and training – are searching out alternative ways of gaining the skills they need.
Maggioncalda tells me, “Now what’s really going away is the idea that the traditional degree is the only place you could really go for access to expertise, knowledge, for ppl who can instruct you, give you feedback, academic advice … and that’s really opened up a lot more opportunities to people.”
In many cases, this change in attitude may simply come down to businesses realizing that employees without degrees (or with degrees in different subjects than would be expected) do not necessarily perform any worse at their jobs.
As I discovered recently when I spoke to Infosys president Ravi Kumar, his organization, in line with many others, has reduced the emphasis placed on degrees at recruitment. Instead, candidates are assessed on the skills that they have and their ability to develop the specific skills that are deemed to be necessary for the tasks that will be part of their jobs.
And of course, the ongoing skills crisis plays a big part in this. Technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, the internet of things, and blockchain have the potential to revolutionize every industry. But putting them to work requires specialized skillsets that are difficult to find, and candidates who possess them are often targeted for recruitment by the biggest (and highest-paying) technology and financial services businesses. When businesses do find the right candidate with the right skill set, it's unlikely that they will decide to turn them away due to a lack of a college degree. In these instances, skills and experience are simply far more valuable to employers.
Are There Still Benefits To Earning A Traditional Degree?
This trend seems to point toward traditional college degrees becoming less relevant. It’s clear, however, that there are still plenty of advantages to taking the traditional route of attending college for three, four, or more years in order to get a degree.
In particular, traditional courses where students move away from home to study in a residential setting are great at imparting life skills. For many young people, it’s the first time they experience living independently from their parents. In addition, it creates valuable opportunities to develop skills in networking, meeting people, and building relationships, both social and for when they later begin their professional lives.
For this reason alone, I think it’s unlikely that traditional higher education is about to be completely replaced by newer, undoubtedly more convenient (and affordable) options such as online and remote learning. It's certainly possible, though, that fewer people will see the need or want to justify the expense of a full residential degree course.
Referring to the results of the recent Coursera survey, Maggioncalda tells me, “Only four percent of them regretted going to college … so clearly they feel they got value.
“And yet half of them or more said the things they learned in college aren't applicable to their job, which means there must be something else they found valuable.
“What colleges still do well is they provide … an experience that most people still value.”
It’s also true that face-to-face, classroom-based learning is still the most effective way of imparting a robust education in a way that means skills will be learned and retained. Online and remote learning may be an efficient substitute in many cases, but I don’t think many educators would claim that it is equally effective as a replacement. However, it’s likely the gap here will diminish as educators become more adept at using new, immersive technologies such as virtual and augmented reality to enhance online learning.
What Will Replace Degrees?
While traditional learning still has its place, I believe this will be augmented by opportunities to learn in other ways. Jobs involving working with new technology will often require workers to keep their skills updated – gone are the days when we could expect to finish our education at the age of 18 or 21 and be equipped with the knowledge we need for a lifelong career.
Online and remote learning makes it easier for us to develop new skills or update old ones in a bite-sized, manageable way. This is part of the reason why the market for e-learning services is forecast to grow by 15% annually until 2025, reaching a value of $50 billion. On top of this, we can expect more employers to actively develop on-the-job training opportunities as they come to understand the efficiency gains of upskilling existing workers over simply replacing them with new, more highly-trained ones.
This change in the requirements of businesses is likely, I believe, to lead to greater adoption of "lifelong learning" strategies among individuals and education providers. Rather than dispensing with education in our youths, we will develop ongoing strategies for keeping our knowledge and skills up-to-date. This may very well translate into subscription services (already offered by providers like Coursera and Udemy) that allow us to dip in and out of education as necessary. This could bring benefits to many areas of society, as our school days – often affectionately known as “the best days of our lives” – extend into our adulthood and even old age.
You can click here to watch my full discussion on the future of degrees and education with Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda.