What does a University Degree get you?

This post has no answers. It only has questions. Questions which are, no doubt, hard to answer. But I believe they are questions which need thinking about and – eventually – answering if universities are to continue to be the education driving force they strive to be.

Many students are coming to university with the sole purpose of making themselves more employable. With Barack Obama, Christy Clark and other high profile politicians espousing that if, by the end of a degree program a student isn’t employable, then the University has failed, then the expectation is set and the pressure is on to deliver programs which achieve that goal.

This means that simply having a degree certificate from an institution isn’t as powerful as it once was. No longer is being accepted into the University of Tokyo (for example) a precursor for success. You’re not set for life any more, simply by being accepted. The onus is on the University to respond to the changing business world to deliver courses appropriate to making their students employable.

What happens if companies or whole business sectors start highly valuing self-taught, online courses more than a university degree?

Let’s say, for example, an entrepreneurial, private-sector company provides a wealth of useful, modern, well-taught courses available on a multitude of mediums. These courses are affordable, self-paced and are delivered by a company whose name is becoming synonymous with quality. After you complete these courses you get a ‘badge’ of some sort.

Now let’s say as an employer, I see that one prospective employee has a degree in a relevant field but another prospect has a set of badges from this online provider. I can find out precisely what these badges are, what this person had to do to achieve them and I already know that they did this in their own time.

Which person am I more likely to call for interview? Does it matter which university the first person’s degree was from? If so, is there a certain group of Universities from which obtaining a degree will always be held in high regard?

It will be no surprise to say that this sort of thing is happening already. In the IT sector there are websites such as CodeAcademy or Treehouse which allow people to train themselves in an ever-growing number of programming languages. More and more companies are starting to interview people based on their online accreditation (normally in combination with a github profile and/or stackexchange score). More job advertisements are saying ‘University degree or relevant experience‘ and, importantly, that relevant experience clause is starting to include provable online training and community experience. Some adverts are simply leaving off the requirement for a university degree completely.

Are there sectors by which this sort of movement couldn’t be affected? Probably. (I, for one, wouldn’t want to be operated on by someone who learned their trade from WebMD and Wikipedia, for example.) Are there more sectors which could start valuing a University degree less and less?

What happens if University accreditation becomes worthless?

Surely institutions like Harvard and MIT (not chosen at random) will always have their name and reputation to fall back on? i.e. Get a degree from one of those universities and you’re going to be in with a damn fine shot of being employable simply because you attended one of them. Is this hypothesis supported by the fact that the University of Oxford simply hasn’t embraced MOOCs? What can universities offer students beyond just accreditation? And are those offerings enough to warrant the financial costs (to the student and/or the government) if the value of accreditation depreciates?

Many of these questions are completely hypothetical. Many of them may not even have answers right now. And there are many more questions on a more macro- and micro-scale that I haven’t asked. Food for thought.

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