The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported on the University of NSW and their plan to offer online-only degree programs that take very little time to complete. “...we’re already thinking about short courses that fit with what industry want,” vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs told the paper.
The programs boast unbelievable completion times of 75 hours. This includes all reading time, assessments, exams and all other marked work. The university expects these courses to become available by 2025, so it’s hard to imagine them having an effect on the present cohort. What’s surprising is they might already be influencing the competition for jobs.
Online learning platforms like Khan Academy founded in 2007 and Coursera in 2012 have already begun delivering unit-focussed learning (the subjects making up a degree), as opposed to whole degree programs. The teaching is far from low quality too; top professors from Stanford, Harvard, MIT and all manner of top institutions provide lessons and course materials for free there.
Students of traditional universities are partly drawn to their institutions by the prestige of having a qualification recognised by employers as useful. So what happens when this stops being the case if cheaper alternatives are available? Ernst and Young published the findings of a study in May this year, revealing 42% of current and past graduates to be unsatisfied with the relevance of their degree, with 51% of international students believing this to be the case. EY Oceania Education Leader Catherine Friday warned, “Australian universities are ranked last in the OECD ranking for the ability to collaborate with business on innovation.” Clearly it isn’t just employers that are dissatisfied with education.
Today’s students entering the job market could find themselves in competition with graduates from industry-focussed, time efficient degrees that don’t yet exist. Fortunately, that’s not the case just yet. Less than twelve percent of people without a university degree have earnings in the top quintile after a 20 year career, whereas some degree programs place over fifty percent of graduates in the top quintile over the same period. This suggests graduates from programs benefiting from these statistics, such as commerce, law, medicine, IT and building, still stand to gain a great deal from university education in its current state.
The 75 hour degrees of 2025 are several years away, but the statistics that inspired their creation remain. Students and employers alike are unhappy with the current standard of higher education, but that doesn’t change the fact that many university degrees maximise chances of high-paid employment.
What can further those chances is utilising online materials to gain specialised skills in a particular subject area. Taking a short course in CSS, for example, can be of great benefit to a Commerce degree holder with a penchant for web design. Rudimentary Python or C++ skills from Khan Academy can provide insights into how digital worlds are sculpted.
It’s likely the advent of 75 hour degrees will bring with it unforeseen problems like an insufficient timeframe to learn material, or maybe even social stigma. For now it appears they will go a long way to solving the problem of inadequate tertiary education. Partnering with industry to spend less time in a classroom or on a campus and more time on the job is at the very least a solution worth trying. In the meantime, students of traditional degrees can rest assured that their qualifications will be relevant for the foreseeable future.
The 75 hour degrees of the future may well be more suited to training the workforce of tomorrow, but for now, the traditional degree seems the safer bet.