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Are universities becoming irrelevant? Tech firms take over in a Covid-19 world

By Wesley Diphoko Time of article published Aug 28, 2020

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The merits of a university education are currently under the microscope. Covid-19 is forcing us to re-evaluate the relevance of universities as developers of a workforce. Yes, they were not just created to develop a workforce, however we are in a different era.

Universities have been tested and they’ve been found wanting. During Covid-19, it will be hard for South African academic institutions to offer value that can enable one to study and earn a qualification that will enable them to get a job.

Many courses by SA universities were never created for an online learning environment, yet they had no choice but to fashion one out of nothing in a matter of weeks. The quality of education during Covid-19 has been shaky. Academic institutions have limited digital means (software and hardware) to enable quality education. At the same time, academic institutions, not just in South Africa, are still charging the same amount of money even though their offering has changed and diminished. While traditional institutions are offering less quality, tech companies are gearing themselves as providers of quality education.

Last month, Google announced the Google Career Certificate for Americans looking for accessible job-training solutions in high-growth industries. These courses offer what people really need now and what they will need to get jobs in future. They don’t offer these courses at the same value as academic institutions. When making the announcement about the courses Google didn’t say how much it would cost to earn a certificate.

However, if it’s anything close to Google’s IT Support Professional Certificate, the cost is quite low, especially compared to universities. There’s also no question that quality will be great judging by the Google products and the calibre of people who work at Google. What is even more important, which tends to be the measuring stick of importance for universities, the Google certificate comes with prestige that no university can match. In case you doubt what this means, here’s a classic example.

According to the World Economic Forum, while data science roles and skills form a relatively small part of the workforce, recent trends indicate that these are currently among the highest in demand roles in the labour market. The demand for data science skills is not limited to the Information Technology sector as data’s importance grows across multiple sectors, including Media and Entertainment, Financial Services and Professional Services. Jobs such as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Specialists or Data Scientists, in which data science skills are perhaps most profoundly applicable, are forecasted to be among the most in demand roles across most industries by 2022.

Google is offering a course for Data Analysts. It describes it as a course that will help learners to develop confidence in navigating the data lifecycle using tools and platforms to process, analyse, visualise and gain insights from data. Google has more legitimacy in providing education in data analytics, after all its technology is responsible for collection and analysis of data. Who better to offer a course in Data Analytics?

This indicates the shift that is likely to happen in terms of who qualifies to offer education for some courses that will matter in the future. Traditional universities cannot legitimately offer the same course with the same depth as Google or another tech company with authority in the field being taught.

Content and curriculum is one part of the equation which is critical, the other critical part of the equation is infrastructure. In this regard Google and other tech companies beat universities hands down. Google has become the default learning management system for education institutions. Even in cases where some education institutions have not yet adopted Google infrastructure, they are likely to do so in the future. Current adoption of Google technology in education institutions points to a future where most academic institutions rely on Google as opposed to buildings to offer education.This situation just strengthens the position of tech in the education sector. There are few universities in South Africa that can confidently refuse the technology offering by Google. The tech giant describes its edu products as solutions that create the powerful computing infrastructure that keeps today’s higher ed communities humming. It claims researchers can speed up analysis from days to minutes, working seamlessly across departments and data sets. Students can collaborate easily and securely across disciplines and campuses.

None of this suggests that a private tech company is best placed to offer education for society. The point is simply that they have better quality tools and know more about what will matter in the future than current institutions. It is therefore inevitable that tech companies are coming for higher education and there’s little that academic institutions can do about it.

This is a situation that requires remodelling of education. Traditional universities are no longer viable places to offer education that will matter in the future. They also lack the necessary infrastructure to remain relevant during these tough times. Tech companies are likely to replace them and that is fine in the short run – however, in the long run a different model of education will have to be developed.

*Wesley Diphoko is the Editor-In-Chief of Fast Company (SA) magazine. He can be reached on Twitter via @WesleyDiphoko.

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