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Tue 1 Sep 2020 11:11 AM

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Education: why skills not degrees should be the new currency

How to turn the world of education on its ear and save the future economy at the same time.

Education: why skills not degrees should be the new currency

Solveig Nicklos is an expert in operational start-up, turn-around and on-going management with a speciality in organisational culture and performance.

Access to quality public education has unarguably changed the course of modern history. It has been responsible for raising billions of people out of poverty, creating opportunities for people irrespective of their background or social status and supported unprecedented economic growth.

Education is now one of the largest industries in the world, and its infrastructure has and will impact nearly every inhabitant on the planet. It is also highly regulated, political, bureaucratic and structured in a way that prevents innovation, resilience and agility at a time when the market it serves is experiencing unprecedented global change and technology innovation. But what happens when the fundamentals of the education consumer market (demand for rapidly evolving skills) has changed but the currency (the degree) of the seller has not?

Is education, then, is on track to be the next Kodak? Or perhaps the steel industry? Institutions and companies so loyal to what they were that they are blind to where they need to be going? Where their fundamental building blocks have become their greatest liability?

In education, over-reliance on the degree as the currency of education is rapidly driving the industry in this same direction and while change now would be difficult and painful, ignoring that fact is a greater threat.

An outdated model

Education is essential for an engaged and active citizenry. Logic, ethics, critical thinking and civil debate are essential skills now more than ever, but the degree was never intended to be a one-size-fits-all solution to learning. It evolved as a product for a different age, different application and has developed negative unintended side effects.

Prior to the fourth industrial revolution a person could be born, go to school, get a job, work, retire and die within the same industrial paradigm. Transformation was relatively slow, access to research and data was limited to universities, and change was predictable and measured.

The major institutions of learning were established during the same periods with the same reality and assumptions and the completion of a degree was likely the end of formal education as the market didn’t evolve fast enough to demand more. A curriculum was taught for years and the professor’s word was final because the skills needed in the market remained consistent. A degree was reserved for the elite few and mainly for a limited set of subjects.

Today, however, the World Economic Forum points to a “growing skills instability” and estimates that the core skills required to perform most roles will change by 42 percent (on average) by 2022. The Coursera Global Skills Index indicates the shelf life of skills is between 18 months to five years. Given this, an individual needs to refresh their skills and knowledge at least six times throughout their career.

So, in light of this, what role does the degree – usually pursued before a career path has even been selected – really have? Universities are now commercially driven entities, credential inflation means that degrees are a baseline qualification for employment, and (most problematic of all) they have become the currency of education and used as a proxy for undemonstrated skill.

Over the last few decades, we have placed an outsized value on the degree and, more dangerously, created a global culture that views its attainment as the end of a journey when the realities of 4IR and the rapid rate of technological change demand that it is only the beginning.

We can check the box of having a degree but is it useful? It takes some universities two years from curriculum development through the approvals process to launch a new masters degree! Two years is a lifetime in a technology-driven industry so is it even possible to maintain currency and relevance through this channel.  Is it time to ask whether or not the degree is still fit for purpose or whether it should be put back in the toolkit as one type of educational currency?

Real-world divide

The disconnect between university output and market need has been growing for years, so this debate is not new. What is new is the impact and reality of Covid-19 and the need to adapt more rapidly than ever before. Industries, companies and entire economic ecosystems are going to radically shift and these shifts will either accelerate the changes the education system needs to make or accelerate non-industry players to disrupt the market. Either way, it seems clear that individuals will be forced to take more responsibility for their skills and commit to genuine life-long learning. It will also force organisations to evaluate their view of work, the skills they need, and the type of people they employ.

In his article, “The Currency of Education”, Troy Camplin argues that transferrable credits would be a better currency. In her book “Seeing Around Corners”, Rita McGrath uses business schools specifically as an example of an industry that is at an inflection point and rife for change. Google has just announced their plan to disrupt college degrees by offering “career certificate” programmes designed to help learners get qualifications in high-paying, growth industries without attending university.

While these ideas are not all new, the education sector has been resistant because it is not agile enough to respond. Unfortunately for them, non-industry players are positioned to disrupt the industry like never before. They have brand names and visibility that lend to instant credibility in a way that can genuinely compete in the education space.

Without question, the universe of education and industry is about to change. The confluence of technology enabled learning, global access to content, new industry players, the gig-economy, working remotely, credible alternative credentials, and employers who are starting to re-evaluate historical hiring/employment norms, means that existing employees have no choice but evaluate their own skills and what value they bring to their role.

It also means there are literally hundreds of millions of potential new workers in previously inaccessible locations that can join the global economy in an impactful way.

The current pandemic has put the digital divide in stark contrast and these inequities must be addressed, but it has also opened our eyes to a world of opportunity that could have exponential impact on global economic growth if we embrace the need for change in both education and the market.

Solveig Nicklos is an expert in operational start-up, turn-around and on-going management with a speciality in organisational culture and performance.

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