Degrees of influence

Mid-career learners, and some of the world’s biggest employers, are looking beyond the ‘graduate club’ for laser-targeted courses and skills

January 23, 2020
Amazon warehouse
Source: Getty

How can you tell someone is an Oxford graduate? They will tell you within the first five minutes.

It’s an old joke, but it’s easy to recognise the truth in it. And why not? University is a huge part of any graduate’s life, and an understandable source of pride. The gag also reflects the fact that to be an alumnus is to be part of a club (insert your own Bullingdon punchline here), as is being a graduate in a generic sense.

More people than ever attend university, and the implications stretch across the board.

Being part of the club influences everything from political views to who we settle down with, our health and well-being and the life trajectories of our children (as well as the number we have).

Some of this is down to education, certainly. But it also reflects the opening up of employment options and choices, and the higher salaries graduates are likely to enjoy.

And like any club, it is self-sustaining. Ask a graduate to rate their alma mater and there’s a strong incentive to score it highly – they have, after all, invested time and money, and won’t want to erode the value of their degree – either in their own minds or in the market.

Employers – who tend to be graduates themselves – have also hung on to the degree as a standard tool for recruitment, even as they complain about a skills gap.

But could that be about to change? Are the club walls about to be breached by the changing reality of work, and a colder-eyed view from employers about what they need?

There is no shortage of people predicting such a shift, nor of alternative models – some highly innovative, and laser-targeted to give both the student and employer what they want.

Some of these models are being pioneered by new providers, usually for-profit, while others are being delivered directly by major employers.

In our cover story this week, we explore the landscape, considering examples such as Amazon, one of the world’s largest businesses, which last July pledged to spend $700 million (£536 million) to upskill a third of its US employees. This investment will help staff in basic fulfilment centre roles progress to higher-skill, higher-salary and hard-to-fill roles requiring competencies in areas such as data science and business analysis. Interestingly, Amazon has been explicit that while it intends to use this upskilling and training process to meet its own recruitment requirements, it is also relaxed that many of those participating will leave to pursue careers using their new skills elsewhere.

The provision of lifelong learning, then, has become a company perk, and one that a business with a track record as a corporate trendsetter does not need universities to deliver or accredit.

How much does this matter for universities? There are some immediate implications. In a recent analysis in Times Higher Education, the Australian higher education scholar Andrew Norton linked the decline in domestic postgraduate numbers in many subjects, including business, to a broader shift away from structured education for people in mid-career.

Norton acknowledged the development of so-called microcredentials as universities try to compete.

However, he warned that demand may be limited: “For working adults needing some new knowledge or skill, university branding may not be especially valuable. They don’t need a university to vouch for their learning with a credential. They can directly demonstrate their skills to their employer.”

This raises an interesting – and sensitive – question for universities.

Their value, and the enduring demand for an undergraduate education, is unlikely to disappear tomorrow, whatever the avalanche-mongers would have you believe.

But it does not necessarily follow that what they are selling has the same value and customer base for the upskilling, mid-career second-chancer, or the reskilling, middle-aged graduate.

Perhaps this is fine and as it should be – and the likes of Oxford won’t be affected much in any event.

But it does raise a warning sign for institutions in the squeezed middle: an upsurge in demand for lifelong learning, which we’re assured is coming, may not be the life raft they are hoping for.

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