A recently published article on CNBC outlined the ways in which training for alternative skills is taking preference over college and university degrees in the United States. This got me thinking about our own education system here in South Africa, one that struggles against the challenges of under-funding, internal politics, a lack of accessibility and more.
While I’m not saying that a university degree is worthless (they most certainly are not), perhaps we as a society have put too much faith in them. Assuming that by getting a degree in anything, that you are adequately preparing yourself for a life-long successful career in the field of your choice. Ask the scores of millennials with psychology degrees how well their job search is going; and you will see the reason why I have made this assumption.
The Case for Universities in South Africa
Traditionally, tertiary education is a prerequisite for many types of employment; but we have, on a global scale, seen a shift over the past decade or so which has outlined an over-reliance on it. Too many BA students are throwing their graduation caps into the air without the practical skills to catch them again, and entering into job markets completely unrelated to their degrees, and being grossly unprepared as a result.
We have scores of professionals out there without jobs, and plenty of unskilled people filling positions across a range of industries. So while these degrees are outfitting students with impressive credentials, they aren’t necessarily developing their skills.
But universities, in their commitment to delivering education, are not strictly at fault, and many of their courses still hold an immense amount of value. It’s not like they are trying to inundate the working environment with softly-skilled, unusable graduates. Universities are facing their own crises with under-funding, a lack of skills and an excess of students.
Furthermore they simply cannot keep up with an erratically developing professional world that develops independently of education. So how has this happened, and what alternatives would be worthwhile to those looking to be students now, or in the coming years?
Falling Behind Newly Developing Industries
The CNBC article raised an interesting point from the data they had gathered from Upwork, an online freelancing platform. Their research shows that out of those skills on the platform that are in highest demand, 10 simply didn’t exist 5 years ago; which means that they were never taught at a university or college.
The article further demonstrates this by stating that for those children entering into primary school now, 65% will end up in jobs that don’t exist yet.
South African universities, being governed by astounding levels of red-tape, politics and limited finances, are not able to introduce these new disciplines into their syllabuses quickly enough for them to benefit students, but are rather offering traditional approaches to tertiary education that are currently, already inundating the market.
That doesn’t mean, however that these skills can’t be formally developed. There are alternatives out there that students can take that specialise in developing skills that are in demand in the working world. This doesn’t only benefit the student, but also businesses who are finding it challenging to source employees with the talent to fill those newly developed disciplines.
Cuts in Funding for SA Universities
Under-funding at university level is a long-standing problem that affects the diversity of the skills they are able to deliver, especially in terms of newly developed disciplines; all of which require substantial and expensive research to develop a syllabus around.
Because of this, even those that do offer training on new disciplines, still do so in a rather incomplete fashion that is only loosely guided by the demands of their respective industries.
Often enough, those conducting the training, have little more experience than the students they are teaching and may have to learn these skills in a theoretical manner, on the job.
Alternatively, specialised colleges exist that represent the most modern aspects of the business world, seeking to bridge the gap between the availability of these skills and the ever-growing demand for them. Their courses are generally designed and facilitated by current acting professionals in their fields, who have a keen understanding of exactly what is needed for success in their industries, and how the demand for these skills may change overtime.
These niche colleges are often boutique in nature, which allows them to focus their efforts and attention on a very specific skillset, not typically taught at universities; and in being partnered with related businesses, can actually offer students hands-on, practical experience in their fields.
The Mounting Problem of Student Debt
Student debt, if ever there was a reason to make careful choices regarding studies, is it. While government does do a little to fund bursaries for students from low-income background, their provisions are somewhat… limited.
Firstly, not many students actually qualify for bursaries. Secondly, government bursaries are not ample enough be offered to the 60% of South African school leavers who, being from low-income backgrounds, cannot afford tertiary education.
This leads many a student to complete their studies on borrowed money, all of which incur mounting student-debts, many of which can never be paid back. This leads a great number of would-be students to question the actual value of their degree, wondering if life-long, unpayable debt is worth a degree that may, or may not get you a job; resulting in them opting out altogether.
Furthermore, those scarce-skills offered by universities, the ones that come at a post-graduate level, are not at all offered by government bursaries. For those students that can get funding, their studies will have to be cut short after the completion of their first-few years; unless they can find the finances to continue further.
While student debt is not exactly exclusive to universities, they do have a bit more of a payoff when one studies to develop their practical skills, as opposed to simply getting a degree. Even non-traditional courses need to be paid for, and often enough on borrowed money.
However, by imparting practical, useable and in-demand skills onto their students, these non-traditional colleges outfit students with the tools needed to be able to make a success of themselves, so that there will be a return on investment with regard to their studies.
Furthermore, the fact that these studies can be completed in a shorter time means that many students can actually secure funding for the entirety of the duration of their course, as opposed to just a segment of it.
University Concludes; Learning Shouldn’t
There is a pervasive idea about a degree, honours, masters or doctorate outfitting a student with the skills, knowledge and talent needed to secure a brighter future, and that these offerings will stand for the rest of the student’s life. This is a novel and comforting idea, but ultimately an incorrect one.
The world, especially the professional one, is in constant flux. It changes all the time. So instead of a degree being a life-long stamp of proficiency, as the CNBC article argues, they offer little more than a false sense of comfort for those learners who think that their studies have concluded.
Ask any professional from any industry when they stopped learning, and they will tell you that they haven’t. Those who opt for alternative methods of study, such as taking online courses or enrolling in niche colleges, tend to learn early on that there is a wealth of information out there, and that it is constantly changing and developing with new findings, technology and processes.
This means, for these people, that upskilling is a continual process without a beginning or an end. Businesses too are realising this, which means that they are looking for employees who are not content to rest on their educational laurels, but would rather keep on learning to better themselves.
They are looking for candidates who have diversified and honed their skills, and have not been content to simply hold a university qualification. In fact, in many cases, companies would rather hire an individual with an excellent demonstration of skill and no qualification, than one who has completed a course at university, and still has much to learn.
In short, a degree, in many industries, may get your foot into the door, but it is widely accepted that it isn’t enough to render you a professional. You will need specialised training for that.
Contact the RCM School of Excellence Digital College to Learn More
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