The Real Value of Higher Education

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Students are graduating in to a different world. Hello, my name is Victor and I’m an ‘university student’. However, I cannot consider myself a traditional student of the Australian higher education system. Alongside my university studies, I have dabbled…

The changing value of university education in the 21st Century.

Students are graduating in to a different world.

Hello, my name is Victor and I’m an ‘university student’.

However, I cannot consider myself a traditional student of the Australian higher education system. Alongside my university studies, I have dabbled in social enterprises, startups and venture capital, particularly in the education sector. These experiences have shaped my ‘alternative’ perspectives on the higher education system.

Before I begin, I would like to clarify the value of university is unique for every student. For many students, university still provides a piece of paper that certifies their ‘knowledge’ and can open many new doors. Higher education is also valuable for those pursuing research or specialised disciplines.

This blog is written from the perspective of a business and information systems student in Australia. Your program of study and/or university may affect your individual experiences.

But of course, I’d love to share some general contrarian thoughts…

Shortcomings of University Education

Here are 3 reasons why university may not be offering students as much value as they traditionally have.

Old Curriculum in a New World

Young people are growing up in a vastly different world. A student can expect 17 jobs across 5 industries in their lifetime. Technological automation is also expected to impact 70% of jobs by 2030 (FYA, 2016). Young people need to develop a new set of skills to keep apace with this new world of work.

As we move into a world changing faster than ever before, lifelong learning has become a compulsory aspect of life.

It is critical that young people understand how to learn, how to think and how to adapt. A set of creative and critical thinking abilities and communication skills are also becoming ever more important. Students need to build up a portfolio of soft and transferable skills that can accompany them in an ever changing world.

However, when was the last time your university deliberately taught you soft skills such as the science behind learning, decision making, adaptability and emotional intelligence? Traditionally, institutions have focused on hard skills, touching lightly upon the soft skills that will help students thrive in a changing world.

On the bright side though, many universities have begun considering these skillsets, so the real question becomes whether these institutions can keep up with the rapidly evolving external world?

Classroom Experience

Higher education should engage and educate students. However, with huge lecture halls and inconsistent tutorials, many students attest to skipping classes because they do not see value. Whilst lecturers are subject matter experts, they often fail to engage students. Two reasons immediately jump to mind:

  1. Teacher to Student Ratio — a professor would teach between 100 — 400 students in a lecture (undergraduate education in Australia). This ratio does not facilitate discussion, interaction or engagement.
  2. Teaching style — Whilst academics are subject matter experts, speaking to a large audience does not engage students. Whilst better models have emerged e.g. flipped classroom, case methods, technology-driven personalisation, many have yet to be implemented well.

We also have tutorials (a tutor to 30 students) that complement lectures. Whilst this provides greater interaction and personalisation, the quality of tutors is often inconsistent.

Information Democratisation

In today’s digital world, information is readily accessible anywhere and everywhere. If you look around online, you have access to millions of articles, videos, books, notes and exams. For example, online courses a.k.a Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are marketplaces for cheap or free online video courses. If you haven’t already, I’d recommend checking out some of the following: Lynda, Udemy, Udacity, Coursera, EdX. While challenges of low retention rates and a weaker reputation with employers still exist, adoption has grown rapidly with over 58 million students registering in the last 5 years alone (Source: Class Central).

Knowledge, traditionally held by universities, is already democratised. Today, students must look outside the classroom to supplement and augment their education.

Universities are no longer the only institutions that hold information. Traditionally, the role of teachers was to transmit information to students — because they supposedly held all the knowledge. However, we no longer live in a world of information asymmetry.

Students are already subconsciously challenging traditional education —many are using the internet to supplement their university education. If they can often get the same (or better) resources online, why do they attend class?

The far-reaching impacts of information democratisation are just beginning to surface. The value of a degree is gradually decreasing as employers place further weight on a candidates’ capabilities developed outside school.

Other Shortcomings

These are just a small subset of many issues e.g. the expensive nature of universities, employer skill mismatch, lack of technology adoption, student feedback…(sorry, can’t fit everything here)

Hidden Values of University

There is still much value in attending university. I’m sure you know the traditional values of higher education, so I’ll skip those and discuss some overlooked opportunities.

Unrealised Resources

We think we know the resources higher education offers us. Many of us do not look further than what’s advertised — scholarships, grants, mentorship and academic programs. Universities are always looking to differentiate themselves from competition and enhance the student experience. Hence, plenty of opportunities exist to tap into the ‘invisible’ resources of universities.

These resources may be explicit, or even implicit — but that does not mean they do not exist. Sometimes, it’s up to you to make it happen.

You should always consider the university’s objectives, and align your personal/organisational aspirations with their aims.

As an example, I co-founded a not-for-profit called Generation Entrepreneur and reached out to my university for support. This lead to a partnership — a $10 000 grant, teaching support and facilities to push our impact to thousands of students.

So how do you tap into the resources of universities?

  1. Understand the structure of your university — universities are complex organisations, so try and understand which department, faculty or allocation of budget this resource sits within.
  2. Align objectives — learn the objectives of the university and align your personal objective with theirs. Then present a clear, compelling case as to why they should support you.
  3. Reach out — work out who the key decision makers are and reach out. If you don’t know how to begin, find a person and ask them to direct you to someone else. If one route does not work, try another. For Generation Entrepreneur, we reached out through four departments for almost a year — there’s nothing wrong with being turned down.

Global Experience

Whilst the globalisation of labour is nothing new, increased physical mobility will only make the world even closer. Young people will work with people from diverse backgrounds and have to learn to manage and communicate across cultures.

Students should take advantage of universities’ global opportunities, such as exchange programs, short-term study or summer/winter courses. Embracing these programs will immerse you in a different world, expose you to different cultures, perspectives and ideas.

Global experiences will build up your adaptability, resilience and cultural understanding — skills fundamental to thriving in the rapidly changing and uncertain world we live in.

Tip for Australian audiences: You generally pay relatively cheap local tuition fees. For example, some US institutions cost US$50 000/year and you can study there paying less than US$8 000/year — so theoretically you’re saving 84% on tuition as an exchange student! Of course, there are also many exchange scholarships available.

In the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to work and study across 10 cities in 4 countries and it’s been a fascinating experience. I’m currently doing a study abroad semester in the US and will be moving to China for a second semester abroad.

Personalisation

As information is democratised, I believe the real value of class is interaction with teachers and fellow students.

A teacher’s ability to personalise information to a student’s specific needs is far more useful than their ability to regurgitate information.

In the Information Age, teachers no longer hold all the knowledge and a student should not just aimlessly listen to teachers. Instead, students should bring teachers to where they are — specifically to what they don’t understand or what they want to explore further.

Students should also utilise contact/office hours to learn more about the stories and experiences of their teachers. Personal experiences (learnings, failures, successes) are excellent ways to relate academics to the real world.

I’ve personally become great friends with some lecturers and tutors. I’ve even had incredible tutors travel to me outside class, late at night, to catch me up on concepts during my last minute ‘cram sessions’ before exams.

Friends, People and Networks

Humans are wired as social creatures, and that’s what has enabled us to build civilisations. It is our network that will help us maximise our lives both personally and professionally, but we often forget how much our friends can influence us.

Univeristy is a great place to meet new people with similar interests and values. But this is also a trap. If we only surround ourselves with people like us, then we create an echo-chamber in which all that we hear is ourselves.

Diversity is just as important because it exposes you to new ideas, experiences and thinking — challenging you to grow and innovate. University provides an opportunity to meet new people from different backgrounds and disciplines.

It may be more difficult to connect with students in traditional classes. Consider joining university boards, societies, clubs and engage with co-curricular activities to meet people that you can connect with.

Libraries, Subscriptions, Licences

Unbeknownst to many, universities grant access to a vast range of digital resources that may be north of several million dollars in street value. Examples include:

  • Digital/Physical Libraries — universities provide access to thousands of books, resources and subscription services. Many universities have subscriptions to leading industry resources. If you are a business student, you may be interested in IBIS World, Capital IQ, Bloomberg, CB Insights and various analyst reports — entirely free.
  • Software Licences — ever been scared by the price of Microsoft Office?Need Symantec anti-virus software? Well they’re entirely free for many university students. In fact, you can get 5 installations of Microsoft Office with your university license. * Depends upon university.
  • Online Courses — many universities partner with Lynda to provide free access to all students. I discussed MOOCs earlier in this article.

Personally, I use IBIS World and CB Insights to support my academic and entrepreneurial endeavours. I also have free subscriptions to Microsoft Office and Symantec Anti-virus software.

Your Turn

Thank you for reading! I hope my ramblings were at least thought provoking in some way. I would absolutely love to hear what you have to say on this topic. Now, it’s your turn — leave your thoughts!

Also, thank you to Peter Sahui, Aaron Ngan, Noah Adelstein, Michelle Tsang and Tammy Tan for your perspectives.


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