Levelling up UK’s regions will require reinvention of the university degree

Expanding the blended or online learning currently on offer will not be enough to achieve reskilling agenda, says Betty Vandenbosch

December 28, 2022
Source: istock

Plans to level up the UK hinge on creating opportunities for people wherever they are, be it in London or Lyme Regis, Cambridge or Carlisle. They will require hundreds of thousands more people to complete high-quality skills training every year.

But scaling up access to skill development in this way will be difficult – with location and people’s busy working lives acting as barriers to training. Universities are innovating how they deliver credentials online for increased reach, but this is not enough – the scale of change envisaged will demand a reinvention of the degree. Blended or fully online degrees represent the start of the transformation needed but three other important things must follow: qualifications must focus on student needs, align with industry and be stackable and inclusive. 

Another key ingredient for providing the same high-quality learning experience students receive on campus for a virtual audience is replicating the same sense of presence and belonging online.

When online learning is done right, it builds community. Students forge meaningful relationships and often find live, interactive sessions more personal and engaging than in-person classes. We’ve heard students say to us: “It’s online, but I feel like I’m really there, like I’m really part of it. I can’t wait to get online, watch the lectures, and talk to my classmates.”

This is the benchmark for what you want: that sense of presence and belonging. If you have that, people are going to learn successfully, even if you get a few things wrong along the way.

Finding a job remains a top priority for students globally and in the UK, which is why universities should strive to integrate more industry content and credentials into online degrees where possible. In particular, industry content, especially in the form of stackable sub-degree credentials that are developed by industry partners, can open up new admission and career pathways, while giving students critical work-relevant skills. The Google IT support certificate taken by computer scientists at the University of London (UoL) helped one student land a tech internship and then a full-time job with UPS, even before he graduated.

A recent Coursera survey found high demand for industry microcredentials among students and employers. In the UK, 90 per cent of employers agreed that a professional certificate strengthened a candidate’s application, while 73 per cent of students in the UK said the inclusion of relevant microcredentials would influence their choice of degree programme.

Making qualifications stackable and inclusive is another major challenge for many more traditional providers. There has been progress on expanding admission pathways to help to level the playing field for non-traditional students but more can be done.

By successfully completing specific courses or assessments, students without traditional qualifications can demonstrate their ability and earn direct admission into a programme. That happened again on the University of London’s BSc in computer science, where students can gain degree credits for completing IBM’s data science certificate, IBM’s AI engineering certificate, or Google’s IT support certificate. All learners need to do is to submit a request for recognition of prior learning, together with their formal application form for the degree programme, to the UofL. Several degree partners on Coursera have seen a substantial increase in applications after removing barriers such as standardised tests and proficiency exams without any reduction in learner performance.

Stackability is also key to a successful online programme. It gives learners the chance to test the education offered via open content – made accessible to all learners at no cost – before committing and moving on to paid, for-credit courses.

By unbundling their master’s and bachelor’s degrees to offer modular, stackable credentials, universities attract new learners and open up inclusive, flexible pathways to a degree. For example, learners that complete the one-year online Master of Science in management (iMSM) programme from Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign can apply their credit hours directly towards the online Master of Business Administration (iMBA) programme if they are accepted to the programme. The UoL’s acceptance of industry-standard professional certificates from IBM and Google for credit towards its BsC in computer science, provides another example from which British universities could draw.

Starting with courses whose content is free to audit leads to wider student uptake. Once a student is accepted into the programme, the completed open content can be transferred towards the degree. Using open content to find students results in lower marketing costs, which institutions can then pass on in the form of lower tuition costs for students.

However, reimagining a degree online requires much more than unbundling. It is an opportunity to develop an ecosystem of on-demand learning opportunities at different price points, which serves diverse students, helping them to achieve their professional goals and maximise their potential. 

It’s time to rethink the degree as a credential with relevance, currency and above all impact for learners in the digital age. We must all focus on expanding access to high-quality higher education across the globe; we have the examples, and now it’s time to execute.

Betty Vandenbosch is Coursera’s chief content officer.

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Reader's comments (2)

It is not the role of universities to provide training. Their business is education. Therefore, what is being talked about here is something outside of a degree.
That is not true - some degree courses are educational *and* vocational. Think of courses in Medicine, Engineering etc... It is not an either or thing, degree courses can be both depending on the subject.