Alternatives to university – time to change the narrative

Work hard at school, go to further or higher education and get a better job. This assumed sequence of events would be so familiar to most of us that we might be forgiven for actually believing it.

The truth is that traditional “school” actually leaves many behind, and a degree is no longer the golden ticket to job security and success. Alternatives to university were often stigmatized, with young people saying they “dropped out” of school rather than being able to embrace that it simply wasn’t for them.

This has changed big time. Job security is only possible in a stable socio-economic environment, and we think it’s fair to say that this is not on the cards for generations to come. Ninety small businesses are created every hour in the UK as we enter a new era of hyper-competition. Climate change, blockchain, AI, changing consumer preferences and a host of other factors are all keen to ensure we stay on our toes.
The skills to pay the bills

The world can change so quickly these days that the job you sought at the start of your college years might be fundamentally altered by the time you graduate. The World Economic Forum published a paper in March 2023 recommending a “skills first” approach to education to counter this growing challenge. No wonder that skills-based hiring is on the rise, and degree requirements are dropping in job adverts outside specific fields like law and medicine (self-taught surgeon, anyone?).

In a fluid global environment, the skills which are sought after are adaptability, resilience, creativity, collaboration, intercultural sensitivity, self-awareness, complex problem-solving, anticipatory thinking, systems thinking and leadership. These are not developed in siloed, teach-to-the-test production line institutions; that statement should be far from controversial.

Harvard Business Review found that employers understand they can quite easily test hard skills at the hiring stage, but are often using degree qualifications as a “proxy” for this soft skills evidence. This is a bit idealistic, as the CMI found in this research paper, only a fifth of employers believe that graduates are actually arriving with these non-technical interpersonal competencies. Mindsets are now shifting.

From IBM and Google to small startups and future-focused companies, the need for a graduate degree is shrinking rapidly, and alternatives to university are increasing in stature and allure.

While the world will always need specialists, and higher education itself is of course, evolving to meet these challenges (though a bit more oomph is needed on that), the mindset of employers is shifting far more quickly. There is a growing skills gap, and businesses can’t wait for traditional education to catch up.
Alternatives to university: Short, focused and adaptive learning experiences

To close the gap, less formal learning environments like MOOCs and boot camps are growing quickly to meet new demands. You could volunteer abroad for a year and take a host of micro-courses to expand your skill set, then take a six-month full-stack developer boot camp and walk straight into a job.

The question remains, however, how employers will ask our young people to evidence these soft skill sets. Supporting young people to demonstrate this is a key focus for the forward-focused learning environment. The answer lies partly in micro-credentials or “alternative credentials”. These are short, focused learning experiences which help us to evidence specific knowledge and skills.

As noted by Dave Ulrich, a Professor at the Ross School of Business, “We are moving from a world where what you know is important to a world where what you can do with what you know is important.” To evidence that missing component, a whole new ecosystem of soft skills micro-credentials is rising, and employers are taking notice. Extensive work on a global scale is underway to develop frameworks of recognition and authenticity for these. You can read more about our thoughts on micro-credentialing here.

Career preparation starts now

Of course, we can start much earlier in preparing young people to pursue their passions and to possess the skills to do so. One often overlooked part of this is creating space in learning environments for consistent reflection and self-awareness so that learners can build their Learning Vitae and talk about the skills and abilities they have developed and how they can show this.

At Learnlife, we focus on supporting learners to develop core skills which will be useful everywhere, from lifelong learning skills to complex problem-solving, collaborative communication, to cultural awareness.

Yes, they also learn the functional skills of numeracy and literacy, but everything else is done in a way that does not box them into one specific direction in life. From cooking to sound production, languages to design, our learners weave in real-life skills such as entrepreneurship, ideation and event planning to ensure they are transferable and useful, come what may.

We know the world ahead is not the one we knew 20 years ago, and we are responsible for giving learners the best start on their journey to creating a fulfilling and purposeful life in an unpredictable world. The Elements of learning innovation we have created to support them are based on the best available evidence and the input of experts in education, business, research and psychology.

In this new learning paradigm, learning is built around the individual, and learners are supported to iterate and reflect their way to uncovering their passion and purpose. By working with Learning Guides, young people can develop a unique set of skills that are tailored to their interests whilst supporting them in developing the core life skills we all need to thrive.

Our Learning Guides act as mentors, helping learners identify their goals and guiding them towards the resources and experiences to help them achieve those goals. As learning is directed by the learners themselves, they are fully aware of their own process, progress and the possibilities this affords them. They are already in their driving seats from day one.

While higher and further education is still a valid path for those who want to focus on a specific domain, it’s important to recognize that there are a great many alternatives to university as well. It is time we stopped talking of this pathway as the “golden ticket” it no longer is and start to focus instead on the best way to becoming the best versions of ourselves, and that starts now.

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