Is the traditional University degree dead?

Covid-19 has rocked traditional academia and while experts suggest they are in trouble, universities insist they are adapting and leading the evolution of learning and training towards an online-based future. Prof Wim de Villiers, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University recently penned an op-ed about the challenges and possible good outcomes of a post-Covid-19 university. In it, he notes that universities have come under severe financial pressure across all the revenue streams, including state subsidies, student fees, research contracts, philanthropic donations and commercial income. The declining economy, he concludes, has seen belts tightened across the board. But, speaking to The...
Covid-19 has rocked traditional academia and while experts suggest they are in trouble, universities insist they are adapting and leading the evolution of learning and training towards an online-based future.

Prof Wim de Villiers, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University recently penned an op-ed about the challenges and possible good outcomes of a post-Covid-19 university.

In it, he notes that universities have come under severe financial pressure across all the revenue streams, including state subsidies, student fees, research contracts, philanthropic donations and commercial income. The declining economy, he concludes, has seen belts tightened across the board.

But, speaking to The Citizen, De Viliers boasts that despite having gone almost fully online for the rest of this academic year out of necessity, the institution has demonstrated that it was indeed ready for a new normal. He says they have created a hybrid system which would see elements of online learning incorporated into courses, but continuing with some activities in contact.

Across the board, the higher education model is changing, as evidenced by the efforts of major South African universities to adapt to social distancing challenges.

Online doesn't mean cheaper

But simply 'going online' without some deep level remodelling of the pedagogy of courses is not an option. Universities have had to reinvent not only what it means to be in class, but how to teach a remote audience, and how to assure the quality of learning is not watered down for expedience. All of this requires lots of money, Vice-Chancellors agreed.

"There is this common misconception that online learning means spending less money but that is simply not the case," De Villiers argues.

"You still need to provide a quality product that is credible and to produce an accredited and well accepted as a traditional Stellenbosch qualification. While it has been commonly accepted that online courses are cheaper, in a lot of ways it can be quite expensive. There should be no compromise on excellence and an online student must get exactly the same quality and exposure to as many opportunities as would be a residential student."

Outgoing Wits University Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib made no ambiguities about how expensive but gratifying it has been for the university to change course almost overnight, and focus their spending on preparing for online learning and assessment.

One thing he emphasised in the Wits experience this year, was that unlike their international counterparts such as Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge universities, where the economics are different, Wits had to provide accessible online learning in an unequal society, leading to protests by students who did not have laptops and connectivity, among other socio-economic challenges.

Habib says only around 15% of his students were in a financial situation that necessitated financial assistance and thus, while the university had to buy around 5,000 laptops in its programme to aid destitute students, other universities in poorer areas may have had to fork out much more to level the playing field.

Traditional universities unable to keep pace?

But, are universities going to lose some prospective students to institutions which have already worked in the online space on a larger scale?

One criticism given by Jake Willis, CEO and Founder of Lulaway of traditional universities, is their apparent lack of positive effect on South Africa's skyrocketing unemployment rate.

"What is it that tertiary institutions are doing wrong and how can it be corrected? Is it not shocking that there are so many government initiatives whose sole purpose is to alleviate youth unemployment, yet the country's unemployment rate is over 30%? More than anything, this proves my reservations that there is indeed a substantial misalignment in the education system's matrix," he argues.

At the same time, tech companies are coming out in full force competing in the learning industry and offering access to the job market at a faster rate than the classic career path.

Google recently launched Grow with Google, an initiative which aims to provide training, tools, and expertise to Americans. It has developed new certificates developed to connect people to employers who are hiring. According to the company, its Google Career Certificates, include IT Support Specialist and Project Management, and are accredited six month alternatives to a three-year university degree.

These courses are marketed to offer job-ready skills to start or advance your career in high-demand fields, and are 100% online. They also cost a fraction of what one would typically pay for a single year at a traditional university.

Several tech companies across the world have also started accepting graduates from so-called programming bootcamps, which offer intense six month training and job-preparedness programmes, instead of three-year-long university degrees in computer science.

Private universities such as Monash University have already been ahead of the curve when it comes to internationalisaton of courses and optimising the online experience for students.

Just marketing hype over substance?

"I don't think those private universities can come anywhere close to the kind of quality that is afforded by Wits, UCT (University of Cape Town) or Stellenbosch. I don't believe that they believe so either and neither do students believe it. So in a sense while it fits into whatever marketing spiel they have going, they are not in the same game," argues Habib.

One way, Wits reckons it was ahead in its decision several years ago to begin experimenting with online courses until last year, there were fully fledged degree courses offered entirely online.

Meanwhile, the University of the Free State Vice-Chancellor Professor Francis Peterson says the institution has had multiple task teams set up to help adapt courses and daily operations to online and remote suitable forms.

"We also have been researching throughout the year on how we will look in a post Covid-19 reality and I myself have initiated the creation of this conversation with CEOs across Africa trying to understand how their business models work and how things will change, whether in health, agriculture, or technology, and the idea was to say we want to be co-creating with these stakeholders so that we are moving forward together and we understand their thinking as well."

So, if Habib and Peterson are correct, then the time of traditional university may not quite be over just yet, but they will have to move with the times and adapt as fast as the technological landscape does, while ensuring they can offer more value for money than the new competitors.

Simnikiweh@citizen.co.za

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