Are Skills Becoming More Important Than University Degrees?

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More and more people are choosing to follow alternative forms of education. And in some industries, skills are becoming more important than degrees.
March 5, 2020

University is meant to be the golden ticket into adult life – setting graduates down a strong career path, equipping them with the skills they need to earn big and succeed.

This is true in part. Earning a degree is fundamental to many professions. Teaching, medicine and law are all jobs where the college or university degree reigns supreme.

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However, in some parts of the world, the price of this certificate is sky-rocketing, causing people to leave higher education with a three-year’s-worth of knowledge and crippling debt.

Unsurprisingly, this is turning some people off. They’re finding other ways educate themselves and enter the job market.

Taking alternative paths to education & skills

Opportunities to develop new skills are expanding. Instead of spending years sitting in a lecture theatre or writing essays, people are investing in their development in small, bitesize chunks

Being more selective with what they learn means they save time, money and they emerge from their study notes with a more specialised skillset.

Employers are also recognising that their established workforce still needs to learn. Staying current with digital innovation is particularly important and so more and more people are being sent on courses that award micro-credentials.

These digital certifications verify that an individual has a specific skill, not unlike the medals you gain when completing a level of a video game.

These short courses first started as coding workshops but the number and variety of micro-credentials available are growing. Digital Promise a US-based non-profit education centre boasts over 450 competency-based micro-credentials that are rewarded by partner organisations, ranging from institutes of higher education to non-profits.

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Other alternative paths to education and skills are offered by different forms of work-based learning such as apprenticeships. Designed to both boost young people’s employability and match companies’ skills needs, this option is becoming increasingly popular among workers, companies and governments.

So if learning and developing skills are increasingly becoming a domain expanding beyond higher education, to what extent is the university degree still a necessity?

Getting ahead without a degree?

One argument is that a degree gets your foot in the door. But nowadays a university diploma simply isn’t enough to walk into a job the moment a graduation ceremony ends.

Recent graduates often grumble that they’ve spent so much time studying they have no relevant work experience. And they often have to invest in developing the necessary skills that their degree didn’t provide in an attempt to make themselves more employable.

Thanks to the alternative forms of education, in some settings it is becoming easier for people who haven’t gone to university to compete for roles with those who have.

Clearly, traditional education systems have not yet caught up with emerging areas of the labour market. Take UX or UI design and data scientists. Requirements for these jobs normally include certification or work experience that most degrees so far cannot provide.

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As AI develops, this is likely to become even more commonplace. What is perceived as a useful area to study may also change. At the moment the emphasis is on STEM, but once machines have reached all corners of the workforce will other subjects be more in demand?

Courses and programmes that promote the development of soft skills are more likely to produce graduates more equipped to successfully enter the world of work.

Research shows that 51% of Gen-Z’ers think that by 2050, a CEO will not need a college degree. 69% believe that soft skills are more likely to earn C- suiters a place at the top instead of hard skills.

A more dynamic workforce

One of the most appealing aspects of alternative education is that it can be enjoyed by a wider variety of people. Some companies are opting for employees with a less traditional educational background because they end up with a more diverse workforce as a result.

They can also pick and choose specialists depending on their company’s needs. More than ever people who may be equally skilled, but not able to have the privilege of attending university, can successfully compete in the job market.

Undeniably, the world is hurtling towards a Fourth Industrial revolution and companies that embrace technological change and empower their employees to do the same are the most likely to succeed.

While universities still play a key role in our education systems, the way we obtain our skills is changing. Will, therefore, education transform like the workplace it’s preparing people for? The skills shortage might be the factor that decides.