Giffgaff – could it be a role model for universities?

How can universities distinguish themselves in today’s marketplace? And how can they appeal to finance-conscious students, whilst ensuring they offer a comprehensive and high-quality education experience?


Increasingly, universities are looking to collaborative, co-operative and innovative approaches. But can universities learn a thing or two from unusual models created by young companies and start-ups? Recently, mobile virtual network operator Giffgaff found itself the third top trending subject online, after climate change and the global economy. The company, set up in 2009, has created a real buzz for its innovative service. But could a university be run along the lines that Giffgaff has explored?


Giffgaff uses a community model in its approach to customer service. There are no customer service phone lines. Instead, the firm uses online message boards and problems are solved by other users. As payment, these informal IT support teams are rewarded ‘payback points’, which they can exchange for cash using PayPal. If there are specific issues that can’t be dealt with, or which involve confidential account information, they’re handled by ‘agents’ – Giffgaff employees.


The result for the company is huge cost savings in terms of call centres – not just salaries, but also real estate, heating and lighting, phone calls, etc. Comparably, BT has some 20 call centres in the UK alone, with a similar number in India. That’s a huge number of employees.


It works for a digital start-up. But could it work for a university? What if lecturers only lectured; administrative duties were stripped to a minimum and instead, online communities helped with the student support that has traditionally been the role of the teaching staff? It makes sense on the one hand, because lecturers are well-paid and there is the argument that they should not be spending time on areas that are not their specialism. On the other hand, the student journey is a sensitive one and needs to be handled carefully; is it fair to say that a key part of student support is to get one-to-one time from their tutor?


The result could be a pared-down approach to fees – a no-frills model, where minimal support and a reduced student experience is accepted as the price of significantly reduced fees. But could this work, and would it be popular?


Making the connections

In practice, a collaborative university is likely to look somewhat different.

Ryan Craig, author of College Disrupted, outlines what ‘Career Services 2.0’ might look like. It’s likely to be data-focused on the one hand, and connectivity- focused on the other. ‘Career Services 2.0 can advocate for university-wide ePortfolios or skills passports or digital badging, Craig says, ‘providing additional competency data that employers can utilize not only to determine which graduating seniors might be good candidates, but which sophomores and juniors might be good candidates for virtual internships or other engagement.’


Secondly, Career Services 2.0 would ‘engage schools and departments to galvanize a culture of employment focus and connectivity, for example through the aforementioned online departmental career networks, or – more promising – by facilitating the establishment of structured pathways to employment.’


It’s in this second area, connectivity focus, that our comparison with Giffgaff might come into its own. The key is for university providers to think differently about how to connect students with the workplace. The existing model – give students an education, then expect them to somehow find the right career straightaway when they leave – is no longer fit for purpose. Indeed, we could argue that it’s never been fit for purpose; it has just always been the default, with neither university nor business seeing it, until now, as ‘their job’.


These things can be changed, so why is it not happening?

‘When we think about how dramatically the world of work has changed, it is remarkable that the methods utilized to prepare students to enter it have remained static,’ says Andy Chan in Roadmap for Transforming the College-To-Career Experience.


There are lots of highly-skilled graduates out there, but they might not be aware of the companies that are looking for them. How many job applications can a graduate reasonably fill in on leaving university? We all know how long such forms can take to fill in; and to maximise the chances of getting the job, they need to be tailored to the company the applicant is trying to get noticed by. Often, job applicants have to fill in templates supplied by the employer which mean you can’t cut and paste – you have to manually enter information into different boxes.


All this is extremely time-consuming. It’s inefficient and frustrating for the applicant, and it means companies are missing out on potential as a result. There’s hard evidence that this problem is real. Nicholas Wyman, CEO of the Institute of Workplace Skills and Innovation wrote last year that ‘as 2015 begins, 9 million Americans are unemployed. Youth unemployment hovers at 15%.’ But at the same time, ‘4.8 million jobs are unfilled because employers lack the skilled workers they need. This gap between jobs and the skilled talent needed to fill them isn’t going away any time soon. 63% of CEOs globally are worried that a lack of skilled workers will continue to threaten the growth of their businesses.’  Clearly, something needs to change.


For Wyman, ‘people without jobs and jobs without people’ is a problem that ‘won’t be solved by one sector alone.’ Short-term fixes won’t work, he argues, and the way forward has to be ‘the creation of innovative partnerships between educators, policy makers, and industry leaders.’ Fortunately, ‘there is growing momentum’ for this. ‘The future of workforce development in the US hinges on collaboration between the companies that will hire the next generation of workers, and those charged with educating them.’ Wyman points out that while companies need skilled workers, educators need more understanding of what skills are required by business, both general and specific. ‘The good news is, collaboration between policy makers, educators, and industry is growing.’


Wyman outlines four key qualities that innovative collaborations and partnerships demonstrate to ‘change the game for students and job seekers at any stage of life, creating clear pathways to a promising career and a stable economic future.’ These qualities also ‘bolster local economies and strengthen local communities’:


  1. Have a shared vision. ‘Partners need to share the same goal and commitment to solving a shared problem.’ It’s in collaborators’ interests to ensure that graduates are equipped for work in today’s fast-moving environment. But to achieve this, ‘partners need to really listen to one another, and determine what each brings to the table. What unique resources can they each contribute to further that shared vision and how, specifically, will they do so?’
  2. Be flexible. ‘Not only do successful partners share a common goal, they also know how to meet each other halfway,’ Wyman argues. ‘Educators need to be willing to adapt curriculum and training programs to meet the changing realities of the world of work.’ Additionally, ‘business leaders have to learn to be flexible and adaptive in their approaches to training and mentorship.’
  3. Start before university. ‘Offering students the opportunity to get a taste of vocational and real-world skills early in their educational journey only results in a more engaged, and motivated workforce.’ Wyman quotes the example of a school in South Carolina where high school students can study robotics, machine technology and industrial electronics with industry professionals coming into the school to help them. Not only that, but as a result, ‘international talent recruiters who want to invest in promising students’ post-secondary education’ are also present at the school. This aligning of study with ultimate career is invaluable and as the example shows, cannot start too early.
  4. Stay up to date. ‘A hallmark of successful skills training models throughout the world is ongoing efforts between educators, employers, and industry groups to stay on top of the newest technologies and trends.’ The South Carolina region referred to above has a Business-Education Alliance, where ‘local business leaders and managers meet regularly with the district’s teachers, guidance counselors, and school superintendents to collaborate and share information.’


Taking the initiative

Graduates are taking the situation into their own hands too, by using social networking sites like LinkedIn to provide a ready-made shop window for their skills and experience. Learning how to get this right can be invaluable; if you have a strong profile, are well-connected and have recommendations, you will get alerts to specific job adverts that you might be well-suited for. You might even get headhunted. The algorithms involved here are used in ways that are still relatively crude; but the canny student can take by advantage of it by thinking strategically and using LinkedIn’s community model to narrow their focus on jobs that they standing a good chance of getting.

Collaborative models are only going to increase as the gap between unemployed people looking for work and businesses looking for workers continues to be a problem. Technology can help crunch this; and the sophisticated student will find their own new ways to get jobs. But schools, universities, governments and businesses could all find that by working together more, the benefits add up for national economies, the university sector and businesses as a whole.


Main sources








What does a full-stack university look like?

A generation ago, we learned in a very different way. A school teacher might ask – ‘how far is Neptune from Earth?’ Answering this simple question involved something of a journey – not as far as from Earth to Neptune, perhaps, but it might seem like that to an eight-year-old child.

First you had to go to the library – either in town, or at school. Then you had to work out where the books on astronomy would be. Having assembled a collection of books, you’d plough through looking for information about Neptune. Some of the books might cover the planets in detail, but not have information about distances. Some might have charts and maps, but finding that elusive statistic might take the best part of the morning. Eventually, and with a sense of discovery and excitement entirely unknown to today’s students, you’d spot the jackpot and victoriously write it down – somewhere between 4.3 and 4.55 billion kilometres, because both planets are always on the move.

Today, of course, we’re only one click away from a piece of information like that. The journey from Earth to Neptune is much, much shorter than it used to be, and far better illustrated too. But the point of this is that the way we learn has evolved as a result. When older generations went looking, they’d find out all sorts of other things along the way – how many moons Jupiter has; how gravity works; how long Saturn’s year is; what the atmosphere’s like on Mars. It also helps you question assumptions – the false assumption being, that there’s a straightforward answer to the question.

Today’s learners simply don’t experience this process. They can find the information they need quickly, and can learn voraciously and widely, but they don’t develop depth of knowledge from incidental research.

This kind of wide but shallow knowledge is a problem. In today’s highly competitive world, we need the very opposite kind of knowledge to succeed – we need deep, but not wide. And this is at the heart of the ‘full-stack’ concept. In programming, a full-stack developer is someone who can complete tasks at any level of the particular technical stack they work in. In practice, this means being able to work with the hardware, what systems you need, how to code in the required languages, how to keep databases live and accurate, and how to project manage and handle external clients. Consequently, the programmer is likely to have deep, but not wide, knowledge – with core competencies in the area of the stack where they operate most.


The other end of the telescope

What might a full-stack university look like? The key is to remember that deep not wide is replacing the broad scope that traditional providers still think is fit for purpose. Classical providers might offer rich, absorbing education experiences, but the focus is still more on the experience than the career to come. A full-stack approach to education looks rather different. Mike Fishbein, who originated the term ‘full-stack education’ argues that such a provider ‘might not look like a school at all. It could look like an employer, a lender, a school, and/or a recruiter all rolled into one.’ For Fishbein, a full-stack provider might do three particular things to distinguish itself from other universities, whilst benefiting the student and the employer enormously.


  1. Hiring.Instead of spending… money on recruiters and still providing training on top of what candidates have already learned, why not skip the recruiter [and] educate someone from scratch. The cost savings in terms of lower wages and/or recruiting fees could outweigh the cost of training. The employee would benefit because they don’t have to pay for college and aren’t crippled by the corresponding student loan debt.’
  2. Recruiting. More alignment between what the student is studying, and what the employer wants to see. ‘If employers don’t value [the credential the student gets], the education is nearly worthless.’
  3. Lending. The full-stack uni could get favourable rates to lend to students on a non-profit basis. ‘Schools could lend to their students with their massive endowments. Employers could waive tuition fees altogether.’


We would argue that, building on this, there are three principal elements to a full-stack university.

  1. Diversity of learning objectives. Talent is accredited differently. Rather than the ‘academic first, job second’ approach, we would make practical learning from professional experiences the most important element. In practice, this means bringing people from the workplace, into the classroom. A key component of this is becoming a reflective practitioner – someone who always enquires about their own practices and has a critically reflective mind. For Ryan Craig, author of College Disrupted, this means to ‘develop and deliver specific high-quality educational experiences that produce graduates with capabilities that specific employers desperately want.’
  2. Ease of finance. Rather than seeing the student’s financial issues as their own affair, we would like to see more constructive involvement from the provider. (This could be offering lending, as Fishbein suggests.) It means providers must ask themselves the question, are we making it as easy as we can for students to study? What is the ROI for the student? Can the student break even on their investment in two years, five years, ten years?
  3. Connecting graduates with employers professionally. This is at the heart of the full stack university principle. Enhanced linkages between what students are learning, and what employers want. Again, the shift of focus in syllabus terms is practically aided by professional intervention. Mentoring, coaching, internships, visiting lecturers from business and action learning projects all contribute powerfully to this.


The key take-out from this is that university should be about the career, not the process. Or to summarise the thinking of Ryan Craig and Mike Fishbein, the purpose of a university is not just to get a good education. The purpose is to get a job. Craig argues that universities need to ask themselves three searching questions, that can be placed within the three categories above:

  • Learning objectives: ‘Are the educational experiences we’re offering sufficiently differentiated and specific to address unmet labor market demand from specific employers?’
  • Connecting graduates with employers: ‘Are employers involved in educational experiences midstream? And are we doing all we can to package, present and connect students to employers once they’ve completed?’
  • Ease of finance: ‘Are we helping students solve for financing, including pursuing a range of business models beyond the default (private-pay, out-of-pocket tuition)?’


Notes of caution

There’s a caveat to the full-stack approach, which providers need to be aware of. In Tech Crunch, Anshu Sharma, a partner at Storm Ventures, writes about ‘stack fallacy’ – ‘the mistaken belief that it is trivial to build the layer above yours.’ For example, ‘Apple continues to successfully integrate vertically down  — building chips, programming languages, etc., but again has found it very hard to go up the stack and build those simple apps — things like photo sharing apps and maps.’ For Sharma, stack fallacy ‘is a result of human nature  – we (over) value what we know.’ He adds, ‘the bottleneck for success often is not knowledge of the tools, but lack of understanding of the customer needs.’

This explains why major companies ‘keep falling’ for stack fallacy. In fact, ‘in a surprising way, it is far easier to innovate down the stack than up the stack. The reason for this is that you are yourself a natural customer of the lower layers. Apple knew what it wanted from an ideal future microprocessor. It did not have the skills necessary to build it, but the customer needs were well understood. Technical skills can be bought/acquired, whereas it is very hard to buy a deep understanding of market needs.’

Ryan Craig agrees with Sharma’s analysis and asserts that universities ignore it at their peril. ‘Colleges and universities are hearing plenty of scary stories of unemployed and underemployed recent graduates with tens (and sometimes hundreds) of thousands of dollars or student loan debt,’ Craig says. ‘Not surprisingly, connecting graduates to jobs and the critical importance of the first job to future earnings has never had a higher profile at cabinet and trustee levels. We’re even starting to see some universities follow the example of coding bootcamps with job guarantees.’


From ‘education provider’ to ‘job aligner’

So, what’s to be done? And in practice, what can a university do differently to offer more of a ‘full-stack’ approach? Let’s consider five powerful options that some innovative universities are currently offering. This list isn’t prescriptive or comprehensive, but it’s a starting point for the kind of thinking we think could make a big difference in the future – shifting the focus from education provider to job aligner.

  1. Offer a ‘nanodegree’ equivalent

Udacity is the main success story so far with stackable, evidence-based credentials. Udacity currently offers ‘eight tech-centric nanodegrees in web development, data analysis, full stack development, mobile development, and tech entrepreneurialism, according to George Lorenzo, writing in Fast Company. ‘These rigorous, project-based, career-focused nanodegree courses, with plenty of video instruction and highly specialized assessments, have been co-developed with such companies as AT&T, Google, Facebook, Cloudera, and mongoDB.’

It’s likely that other providers will be able to take a leaf out of Udacity’s book and offer similar flexible courses in the future. ‘Combined, nanodegree courses currently enroll about 10,000 students,’ says Lorenzo. ‘After officially launching its first nanodegree in October 2014 with a $35 million investment infusion, around 1,000 students have completed nanodegrees.’ And at least 150 students ‘have been directly assisted by Udacity with finding meaningful work.’

Lorenzo quotes Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun, who in talking about the company’s business partnerships says, ‘What we basically get from these companies is accreditation.’ Arguing that the validation of nanodegrees comes from the ultimate employer, not the provider, Thrun says, ‘if they say we are more than happy to hire these people, that we trust Udacity, then the entire machine works out for us and the students.’ In other words, Udacity is gradually accumulating proof of our thesis that the aim of an education provider is not to give you an education; it’s to get you that job.

Nanodegrees answer the finance question too. Udacity is ‘now offering a 50% refund to students who complete a nanodegree within 12 months. This means that last year’s $200 per month rate for these courses has been cut down to only $100 per month.’ How is this achievable, and is it sustainable? Thrun’s answer is to outsource. ‘Beyond the company’s relatively small team of core employees located at Mountain View and San Francisco,’ Lorenzo comments, ‘Udacity has hired several hundred remote independent contractors from around the world who are highly qualified program reviewers, mentors, and content developers.’


2. Nurture your entrepreneurial talent

The survival rate for new companies makes for sobering reading. New research shows that in the UK, there were 246,000 business failures in 2014, of which some 99% would have been SMEs. How to improve this? Teach entrepreneurship. Make students aware of the pitfalls, and show them what they need to create a successful start-up. Concentrate on developing a USP. Look for ‘blue space’ in the marketplace. Check what the competition’s doing, and make your company different. Don’t try to be the cheapest. If you’re product-focused, don’t neglect service.

As Katy Tynan points out in EdTech Times, ‘between 1985 and 2008, the number of entrepreneurship courses in U.S. colleges and universities increased from 250 to over 5,000, and that number has continued to grow.’ Tynan quotes figures that estimate nearly half a million students are now taking courses in entrepreneurship in the US. ‘Colleges are making a concerted effort to convince these budding business owners that rather than dropping out they should stay in school and launch their ventures from inside the supportive ecosystem of their alma mater,’ she says.

For Tynan, providers are taking different approaches to the problem, whilst agreeing that losing their ‘best and brightest’ to startups is an issue. ‘For some schools, the answer lies in direct investment into startups by students. In 2009, Stanford students launched StartX, a nonprofit accelerator program for students and alumni. In 2013, the University began directly investing in StartX and in the companies it launched.’

Another option is simply to integrate entrepreneurship into the curriculum. ‘MIT incorporates business plan challenges, pitch days, mentorship, and other elements of the startup process into its Entrepreneurship and Innovation track during the MBA program,’ Tynan adds.


3. Be flexible

Traditional education might be seen as a matrix helping you (or not helping you) towards a job. The full-stack university is more like a funnel. If you need a particular credit, the ultimate full-stack university might enable you to get that credit. If you need a certificate from a coding boot-camp, let’s look at getting you that certificate. If an internship or a spell at a particular company is what you need, let’s see how that can fit into the holidays. Increasingly, students, providers and companies will work together in future to ensure that the graduate is aligned to what the recruiter wants.



4. Develop soft skills

Being good at work isn’t just about what grade you got. It’s also about being able to work effectively in a team; negotiation skills; understanding how your role fits in with wider corporate objectives; social skills; empathy; creativity; and other character traits that aren’t measured in an exam or in a dissertation. Such skills are about successful interaction with others – with the aim being to become interdependent; not working in silos as the culture of traditional learning in universities (solo working in libraries, for example) might seem to promote.

These skills can be taught, but are often largely or entirely ignored at university. Education providers who want to create a USP can develop this component as an important element of the student’s time. Research from Google indicates that ‘psychological safety’ is one of the foundation factors in the company’s best teams. ‘The safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles,’ says Laszlo Bock, Vice President of People Operations at Google Inc.

We would argue that the ideal university creates the ideal person – homo universalis. University is about nurturing, shaping and positively influencing students as individuals. That’s not just about academic learning – it’s about improving self-esteem, improving relationships with peers, and about creating psychological confidence. These elements impact hugely on how the individual develops their later career. All of this is about developing, enhancing and maximising the individual’s potential. It’s about, in effect, the value of being human. Consider the Southern African philosophy ubuntu, which we might define as, ‘I am because you are’. Embedding this principle of shared humanity is what university should ultimately be about.


5. Recognise that validation is changing

Globally, companies are no longer seeking employees based purely on how good a degree they have. They are more interested in how suitable the candidate will be for the job. Gregory Ferenstein writes in Forbes Magazine how Google is increasingly ignoring traditional signifiers of good quality job candidates. Google ‘doesn’t care much about Ivy League credentials or a sterling college transcript,’ says Ferenstein, again quoting Laszlo Bock. ‘It’s one of the flaws in how we assess people,’ Bock says. ‘We assume that if you went to Harvard, Stanford or MIT that you are smart. We assume that if you got good grades you will do well at work.’ But as Bock explains, these assumptions are inadequate at best and simply wrong at worst. ‘There is no relationship between where you went to school and how you did five, 10, 15 years into your career. So, we stopped looking at it.’

Bock makes the alarming – but potentially exciting for new providers – assertion that ‘college degrees and grades… don’t indicate whether employees can perform well in the real world.’ And significantly, he adds that ‘Google is skirting around traditional universities in the process of pursuing an expanding educational business agenda. If others follow Google’s lead, it could portend big changes for the future of higher education.’ As a result, it’s more vital than ever for education providers to move away from the classical education approach and move towards the full-stack concept.


Business failures stat: House of Commons Library Briefing Paper number 06152: Business statistics. 7 December 2015. 

When education meets the corporation

Globally, there is a disconnect between students and jobs. According to McKinsey’s recent Education to Employment report, around the world ‘75 million young people are unemployed, but businesses can’t find enough skilled workers to fill job vacancies.’ Meanwhile, businesses frequently complain that they don’t get the calibre of graduates they need to fill the roles they have, particularly in STEM subjects.


Why has this situation come about – particularly considering that fees for universities have increased at eye-watering speeds over the past few years? And what can universities do about it, to better match their students with the jobs that businesses want to fill?


First, let’s consider some context. The McKinsey report reveals some fairly dramatic figures.


  • Half of young people are not sure that their post-secondary education has improved their chances of finding a job.
  • Almost 40% of employers say a lack of skills is the main reason for entry-level vacancies.


Against this figures, let’s look at some equally startling statistics about how much is invested in our young people’s education. At the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, Anthony P. Carnevale and Nicole Smith reveal that in the US,


  • Approximately $1.5 trillion or 11% of GDP is spent on human capital or skills development each year.
  • Elementary and secondary education takes the largest share of this: $608 billion (41% of spending).
  • Together, formal and informal training by employers represents $454 billion (30% of spending): $313 billion on informal training and $141 billion on formal training.
  • $380 billion is spent on higher education, which primarily consists of formal education programs at colleges and universities.


Some $380 billion is spent on higher education – and yet employers can’t find the right graduates for their jobs? Something is amiss somewhere along the line.


The McKinsey work points to several fault lines that it believes are causing this problem. A broad summary of its view would be:


  • Workplaces, educational institutions and students are operating in ‘parallel universes’. Fewer than 50% of young people and employers believe that new graduates are adequately prepared for entry-level positions. But 72% of education providers believe new graduates are ready to work. A similar disconnect appears when asked why students fail to finish courses – 39% of education providers state drop-out rates are because courses are too difficult, but only 9% of students agree, citing affordability as the main reason.
  • Education-to-employment is an obstacle-strewn road. Getting the enrolment means overcoming issues of cost and ensuring you’ve chosen the right course. Once underway, there are issues with building skills – 60% say that on-the-job training and hands-on learning are the most effective instructional techniques, but fewer than 30% are enrolled in curricula that prioritise such techniques. Finally, there is finding the job at the end – a quarter do not make a smooth transition to work, as their first jobs are unrelated to their field of study and they want to change positions quickly. In emerging markets, this number rose to as much as 40%.
  • The current education-to-employment system fails for ‘most’ employers and young people. The McKinsey research reveals that only 31% of employers get the talent they require.


How we reached this situation

Part of the problem has been the way the competencies that society needs has shifted so quickly from production-based to information-based skills. As Carnevale and Smith at Georgetown put it, ‘In the past, employers viewed workers with solid occupational-specific skills as sufficient for success on the job. But as workers are increasingly called upon to make decisions at the point of production or point of sale and display good interpersonal skills when working in teams or with customers, the confidence that engenders success in these areas springs from a positive sense of self-worth or self-esteem.’


In consequence, traditional universities are suffering an assault on several sides from MOOCs, vocational training and for tech educations, coding bootcamps. There is a risk that if traditional universities don’t adjust to today’s fast-changing circumstances, they may find themselves gradually but inexorably being squeezed out by providers that are more flexible about how students learn, tailor themselves to students’ needs, can offer more guarantees of jobs at the end of the process, and come out cheaper overall. When students are being increasingly under pressure from galloping tuition fees, price becomes much more of a stalling factor than it used to be – it can be the difference between committing to a course, and not going at all.


Whilst alternative approaches to education are not going to make the walls of our oldest universities tumble down just yet, there is a slight sense of inevitability about the way technology is making distance learning ever more enticing to cash-strapped students. If you get the job at the end of the day, who needs to spend three or four expensive years in a cloistered bubble? Ryan Craig, Managing Director at University Ventures, argues that this point is pertinent to the future of tertiary education. The question Craig poses is – ‘how to use technology to develop and deliver shorter, less expensive, 100% digital (and therefore accessible) postsecondary programs that lead to credentials that employers will recognize and value.’ The answer to the question, if there is one, ‘will be critical to the future of colleges and universities.’


Look at the gradual success of disruptive providers like Udacity, which offers ‘nanodegrees’. Starting out as a MOOC, Udacity has developed nanodegrees ‘in partnership with leading technology companies (“built by industry”),’ Craig explains. ‘The thinking [is] that Google’s involvement in the Android Developer Nanodegree improves the curriculum; the Google brand doesn’t hurt either. Udacity has done the same with iOS (Apple), Tech Entrepreneur (Google) and its other programs (by a committee of leading technology lights).’


Udacity is slowly but surely making progress. ‘A New York Times profile of Udacity on September 17 [2015] revealed that Udacity has 10,000 students enrolled in Nanodegrees – a number growing by 30% every month.’ If, as Craig points out, ‘10,000 students are paying $200 per month, that’s annual revenue of over $20M – perhaps enough for profitability.’


The aim of such courses is to be ‘shorter, cheaper and more accessible’ and create ‘credentials – badges – that employers will recognize and value as an alternative to the existing, expensive and constantly derided degree-industrial complex. To this end, both companies are trying hard to link their content to employers. Udacity’s Nanodegrees carry with them the names of the world’s most famous technology companies – where traditional universities rely on their long-established brands, Udacity piggybacks today’s tech giants to boost its brand for it.


Universities at least need to address these side-swipes from badge-based providers. Consider a few more damning figures from McKinsey:


  • A third of employers say they never communicate with education providers.
  • Of those that do, fewer than half say it proves effective.
  • More than a third of education providers say they are unable to estimate the job-placement rates of their graduates.
  • Fewer than 50% of graduates state they had a good understanding of what disciplines lead to professions with job openings and good wage levels when they chose their course.


A final criticism of traditional degrees comes from Google itself. Degree grades are, believe it or not, ‘worthless as a criteria for hiring,’ according to Google’s Senior VP of People Operations. If this is the view of our leading tech company, which is now busily partnering itself with badge-based providers like Udacity and Coursera, surely traditional education has to sit up and take notice.


Looking for the solutions

So, what’s to be done? If universities in the form we understand them are going to survive, then surely the key point is simple to say, but hard to do in practice. It’s essentially for learning organisations, businesses and students all to engage with each other more.


The McKinsey research suggests several desirable outcomes – all from the top-line points of universities, businesses and students needing to communicate with other more effectively, collaborate more and stop seeing university education as a linear process where the ‘job offer’ only comes at the very end.


In essence, the way forward can be described as follows:


  • Have new incentives and structures. Stakeholders need better data to make informed choices and manage performance. Give data to students and parents about career and training options.
  • Offer more workplace data. Information about what happens to students after they graduate is not routinely offered by learning organisations – it could and should be. What are the job placement rates? How long does it take students to get to an average salary role? What proportion of graduates reach high salary roles?
  • Connect more effectively with business. Transformative solutions involve multiple providers and employers working within a particular in industry or function. These collaborations solve the skill gap at a sector level; by splitting costs among multiple stakeholders (educators, employers, and trainees), investment is reduced for all.
  • Take a high-level view of education. In practice, this might mean creating the role of a ‘system integrator’, who works with education providers and employers to develop skill solutions, gather data and identify and disseminate positive examples. The integrator can be defined by sector, region, or target population.


To this we could add: encourage students and parents to self-inform more. The internet is full of information, but it can be hard to track down helpful information. Instead of allowing our students to go to learning organisations largely in ignorance of job expectations and in the dark about what their futures might be, help them to think more strategically about their careers from an early age. That will help them choose their course in an informed way, plan their student years more effectively and have an eye on what they want their key outcomes to be when they graduate.


The conclusion from the McKinsey work is that successful programmes do things differently. They ‘step into each other’s worlds’. Employers might help to design curricula. They might offer their employees and faculty, and they might let students spend as much as half their time on job sites. They might then get them hiring guarantees. The best programmes work with their students early and intensely. They avoid the linear obstacle-path of enrolment, skill-building and job offer by treating the education-to-employment journey as a ‘continuum’ in which some employers even commit to hire youth before they are enrolled in a programme to build their skills.


And finally, to adapt the structures of traditional business education to a more fully-aligned model. Get students to spend more time trailing employees in organisations. Integrate internships as part of the degree, not an add-on or something for graduates to organise for themselves once they leave university. Have more in-university training, as well as academic education. Have more lectures from organisation employees during the course of the degree – current doers, not people who used to be doers or who watch others doing.


In short, make education less passive. Make it the platform from which graduates can step seamlessly into their first role – not a launching pad that requires a leap of faith that can seem daunting and hard to attain for many of today’s students. It’s achievable, but not easy. But today’s students will, increasingly, demand and deserve it.