Thursday, 2 January 2014

Why go to University? MOOCs will change everything. Higher Education beware!

There are many reasons for going to university but, arguably the most important three reasons are:
  1. To have a life experience: making the first steps to independence by living away from home, living with like-minded people.
  2. To gain an Internationally recognised qualification, which will open doors into the job market.
  3. To study - to learn skills and engage with a body of information.
British Universities have had it good for a long time, with successive Governments encouraging ever greater student numbers, but I suspect that the tide is about to turn. The arguments for going to university are not nearly as strong as they were in the past.
Going away to university is a luxury that not everyone can afford
There was a time when going to university was a privilege for a minority that was earned by gaining a good A-level grades and was paid for by the Government, who saw fit to invest in our 'brightest and best'. Those days are gone. Universities are now businesses operating in a competitive market place and they are far from free. According to the National Union of Students the true cost of being a student outside London is £22,189 each academic year (£10,133 for course costs £12,056 for living costs - for the full breakdown of these figures see the NUS website). Today's undergraduates are likely to leave university with £50,000+ debt (BBC Website: 'Average UK student debts 'could hit £53,000' 12/08/2011).
Going away to university to have a life experience increasingly is going to be an luxury that young people cannot afford. Although there is no evidence of this beginning to happen yet, it is likely that we will see more young people living at home, at least for part of their course.
Graduate Employment patterns are changing: almost half of recent graduates are working in non-graduate jobs:
According to the Office of for National Statistics, Graduates now comprise 38% of the adult population (up from 17% in 1992). The positive news is that graduates are more likely to be employed and less likely to be searching for work:

However this ignores a key factor that 47% of recent graduates are in employment, but in non-graduate roles:

The graduate employment market is increasingly competitive, with job prospects broadly being determined by the following three factors:

Whilst there remain significant rewards for those with First Class Honours (and even Upper Seconds) from top institutions, the reality is that a 2:2 in a Humanity from a middle ranking university will mean that your employment prospects are very limited. All of this begs the question if there will be any 'graduate premium' for a significant proportion of our university leavers, let alone whether or not it will be of a significant level to justify the investment of taking on the inevitable debt that will be incurred.
MOOCs will change everything
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are set to transform Higher Education. Imagine have Open University courses available free taught by the world's experts. The leading Universities around the world are making their courses (not just lectures!) available in online versions.  EdX brings some of the best courses from Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, McGill et al (full list of institutions here); Coursera a similarly distinguished body (full list of institutions here).  The following YouTube video gives a basic introduction to EdX:

At present the range of courses is limited, but it is only a matter of time before complete undergraduate programmes are available online.
MOOCs: Accreditation will be the battle ground of the next few years.
The only problem with MOOCs at the moment is that, although you can get a 'statement of accomplishment' for reaching the standard in each unit, the courses themselves are not accredited and don't count towards degrees. MOOCs are in effect the wedge that will separate a university's role as a provider of education and their function as a degree awarding institution. Hitherto these functions have been related - the university taught the course to its students, it examined them and it awarded them a degree. MOOCs change everything. MOOCs mean that an online student can do a course, learn the skills, assimilate the information and even be assessed. It rather begs the question why they can't be accredited for the work that they have done. 
FAQ from the Coursera course 'An Introduction to Financial Accounting'
We might even envisage a situation where a MOOC student has completed the first two years of a degree course online and then applies to transfer as a resident student into the third year of the undergraduate programme.  How will that university react?  How can it argue that the student hasn't reached the requisite standard? 
MOOC courses, Employers and Professional Bodies
A further complication is that employers or even Professional Bodies might accept MOOC courses, even though they are not accredited by Universities. Take, for example, the Coursera course 'An Introduction to Financial Accounting' taught by the University of Pennsylvania. Employers and the Institute of Chartered Accountants are likely to be more concerned that an applicant has mastered the principles of financial accounting than they have a shiny degree certificate. Indeed it is easy to see that they may be more impressed with the self-starter from a humble background who has shown the motivation to complete an online course over and above the resident undergraduate.
Conclusion The laws of supply and demand will hold sway and is that we are likely to see the top universities continuing to get stronger and the lesser universities falling by the wayside. I predict that
  • there will be a flight to quality. Degrees from the top universities will always have a currency in the job market and there will always be sufficient numbers who will be willing to pay for that experience, education and qualification. Increasingly savvy students are likely to consider that it just isn't worth the debt studying esoteric courses or studying at lesser universities.
  • increasing numbers of students will study living at home, perhaps going away to university for a year to have the experience
  • an increasing minority will head to the big name universities in Europe which have lower entrance requirements (EE at A-level), lower fees (Universities are free in Germany) and which are increasingly offering courses delivered in English (in order to attract the Far East market). This is certainly the best option for the CCC candidate where the British alternatives are overpriced for the end value of the degree that they have to offer.
Accreditation of MOOC courses is going to be the real battle ground of the next couple of years and it is set to split Higher Education:  MOOCs pose no threat to universities who are in the top 50 in the world rankings. There will always be demand for these institutions' courses. Indeed these universities will drive the expansion of MOOCs to enhance their reputations worldwide. However MOOCs will pose a real threat not only to the Open University (why pay if you can study online from HarvardX for free?), but also to lesser British universities, who are likely to guard their degree-awarding powers jealously lest their residential numbers plummet.Ultimately this is out of their control. The top 50 universities will do what they will do - it is a competitive marketplace after all.  There is little doubt that MOOCs will be a significant catalyst for change in the whole structure of Higher Education around the world.


  1. I feel some schools (subtle hint!) give the impression to students that going to university is the only option. The UK has a great international presence in terms of higher-tier education, and for those for whom it is necessary to go, should go. For example, people wanting to work in the science or medical industry - there is almost no way to get into said industries without degrees. However, as your information shows, many are going to uni then resigning to the reality of the situation that the course they did didn't actually help that much.
    As someone who turned down university in light of a better offer, I can assuredly say that there is a massive amount of peer pressure and general disapproval of someone not going to university when they can.
    But why?
    I have always managed to prove to people that the option I took - to work - was better than going to uni, but the amazing (and always-present) response I get is that I should go to uni for "the experience".
    Let's analyse why it's not worth going just "for the experience".
    1) Debt. I feel I don't have to go into this one.
    2) Opportunity cost. Those 3 years I've just spent partying, getting drunk and getting an average degree "for the experience" have resulted in me losing 3 years of doing something productive. Or, at least more productive than partying.
    3) Rose-tinted spectacles. When talking to people who went to uni many years ago, they often talk about how it was an intense experience, working all day and playing all night. My friendship group includes hard-workers and the lazy type, and I can say that on average they go out only 1-2 times/week and work up to 15/20 hours per week. I know they are only in the freshman year, but even the studious ones feel that they are being incredibly unproductive. This means people go to student-hosted groups/clubs.

    The thing is, I can, and do, socialise as much as I can - and I seem to be doing the same amount as those at uni.

    So , in terms of productivity, I feel that unless you come out of uni with a very useful degree, it's better to get to work.

    Taking the opportunities that are best for you is paramount. This means being unbiased towards going to uni (I've only argued one side here, but it's the never-argued side)

    -Daniel Steele (18)
    Systems Developer

  2. Daniel
    Thanks for this. Your point is very well made and I am sure that there are many young people out there who will take the decision that you took and choose employment at 18 rather than going to university. The key is spending one's time meaningfully whether at university or at work. All the best with your career.