The value and Value of higher education

In the middle of July, Google announced:

“A new suite of Google Career Certificates that will help Americans get qualifications in high-paying high-growth job fields—no college degree required. We will fund 100,000 need-based scholarships and at Google we will consider our new career certificates as the equivalent of a four-year degree for related roles.”

This announcement – and specifically the announcement of equivalent value for this $300 certificate to a college degree for hiring purposes within Google – is a more extreme example of the “HE vs FE” debate within England at the minute, and illustrates both the advantages and disadvantages of universities.

The feeling behind a lot of the push from policymakers for “more FE places, fewer HE places” in England is not just that the former is cheaper, but that FE qualifications are quicker to achieve, and more aligned to industry and labour market needs. This means that state investment is consequently returned quicker, and more directly.

There are, of course, many debatable assumptions in that hypothesis (assuming that you even grant the premise that HE and FE places cannibalise each other). With all the caveats around LEO and DLHE data, a significant majority of graduates find work quickly, and better paid work than non graduates. It isn’t clear that examples of high FE wage returns from things like Higher Technical qualifications –  cited by the Secretary of State in his recent speech  – would hold as such provision scaled. And many universities have outstanding partnerships with industry (and indeed with FE colleges), and specialise less in theoretical study and more in providing job ready graduates highly trained in shortage skills within the labour market.

But the Secretary of State is right that the future projections of the labour market in the UK show an increasing need for higher level technical skills.

Given the dominance of HE to the cultural and way of life within tertiary education and training in England, previous efforts have tried to achieve a marriage; to bring together the ‘brand recognition’ and prestige of university with the labour market requirements of FE. Industry partnerships mentioned above are one way of doing this.  Sandwich placements are also an option rising in popularity, with a rise of almost 20% in the last 5 years to 180,000 students a year. Sub degree provision like foundation degrees, HNCs and HNDs has been much less successful, with all of these in steep decline, driven in a large part by a funding system that has prioritised traditional 3 year undergraduate provision. The most interesting recent development has been Degree Apprenticeships. These are increasing fast from a low base, and in 18/19 there were 23,000 students studying at Level 6 or 7 (with a further 50,000 studying at Levels 4 and 5), and with some very large graduate recruiters, such as those in professional services and in the public sector, moving into this space as an entry route.

Probably the most advanced linking of industry needs to qualifications has been in the tech sector. Formal branded qualifications such as the longstanding Cisco and Microsoft certifications, or more recent ones such as AWS cloud computing certificates, carry wage currency in the labour market. The key to such qualifications seems to be that (apart from being empirically good at making someone better in a function) they signal competence backed by a credible firm, and they offer skills which many other firms (and not just those in the tech sector – many firms across all areas will increasingly use cloud computing, for example).

What the Google certificates have the potential to do is take that concept to its logical extreme, by formally granting it equivalence with a 4 year degree for hiring purposes in Google. If a Microsoft or AWS certificate says “this person has mastered concepts which in general we put our brand behind”, the Google certificate has the potential to say “this person has mastered concepts which we put our brand behind, and are willing to hire into our own company using it”. And unlike many other announcements which simply declare parity of esteem between technical and academic qualifications with no means of achieving it, a company like Google absolutely can put this into action through its hiring decisions.

Beneath this slightly provocative viral commentary on the Google announcement (“end of the line, academia”), there’s lots of pushback that university offers much more than a route into the workplace. Indeed it does. This is its biggest advantage; it provides all manner of important wider benefits to graduates beyond labour market outcomes. And even if viewed purely as a route to a job, it’s still rational for many young people entering tertiary education to resist the temptation to specialise into a specific career pathway, and to instead seek a qualification that grants graduate level skills more generally, and has a broad signalling effect.

But we also know a lot of young people across different countries want to go to university as a route into getting a good job. The big disadvantage for some universities who are insufficiently linked to the labour market desires of their students could be that the price of these benefits of a wider undergraduate experience – when set against the increasing availability of lower cost alternatives like degree apprenticeships of industry backed certificates –  is not one that all students are willing to pay.