How private educators are changing the education landscape

Original Post on First5000 13.05.2016

It’s time to reset the thinking around what a private tertiary education provider is and does. Let’s put aside the seemingly endless stories about dodgy vocational schools rorting FEE-HELP/HECS and gaming the immigration, indigenous and regional support systems.

There are many reasons for why these schools are able to exist, exploit and ultimately fail, but the simple fact that they are private providers isn’t one of them.

After all, many of the best education institutions in the world — including Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Yale and INSEAD — are private.

To see the forefront of innovation in education today, we need to look at private educators like General Assembly, Coursera, PluralSight and LinkedIn.

They are redefining the value proposition of study and skill development. They are going beyond the undisputed domain of universities: content and place. These providers focus on delivering experience and value, not just for the students, but for employers and even the educators.

What’s the issue with traditional professional education?

The current approach to qualification and certification was developed for the industrial revolution era — a world of specialised roles relying on the mastery of employing one or more tools, machines or processes. Once learned, one could count on being able to apply that mastery in any job that used the same skill sets, processes or tools.

Those jobs are rapidly disappearing. Today’s employees are creating new processes and customised tools on the fly. Productivity and profitability comes from the ability to adapt and optimise, to innovate on the run. Launching into a new market? You might need to build an app for that.

Yesterday’s rigid frameworks of qualification are losing relevance in this post-industrial, digital era.

As a result, accreditation and certification institutions are having the same urgent discussions — what can they do to remain relevant? In parallel, private educators are forging ahead, leaving the formal qualifications behind.

What are these new private educators doing?

The new educators focus on two tactics: finding expert teachers and course designers, and asking their customers what they want.

They do this because they want to build programs that deliver exactly what the customers want, in the best and most efficient manner, within a purpose-built ecosystem.

Traditional higher education providers, on the other hand, don’t ask what their customers want, and are instead looking for ways to fund current buildings and researchers.

The private educators that focus on employability are creating courses that ensure students have a relevant portfolio and referential network. For example, General Assembly hires leading industry experts from companies like Google to develop courses using the latest, most-demanded web and mobile technologies. The students are given real-world projects reflective of the software being built in the companies that will be employing them.

They are also coached in how to use these projects to demonstrate their skills and interests to an employer. At “demo day”, prospective employers are brought in and the students present what they’ve developed. Within a few months, many of the graduates have job offers.

Private educators are increasingly employing teachers that are recognised leaders in their field, and are providing interesting facilities/locations for program. Here at Intersective, for example, we create project-based learning where students participate in real projects with leading companies, which encourages them to feel like they’re “part of the team”.

Rather than theory, they’re given the opportunity to learn directly from professionals who have “been there”. They are set up to struggle and eventually succeed, because such experiences create confidence, which is highly valued by employers.

When people talk about these new types of programs, they don’t ask about the academic qualifications of the instructors, or which certification authority has signed off on the course.

Rather, the students and their future employers want to know about the professional qualifications of the instructors and course creators, the timeliness and relevance of the material, and the ability to demonstrate skills at the completion.

What does this mean for employers?

A consistent message from business executives is that they are focusing on demonstrated skills over qualifications when evaluating talent.

While qualifications are still a filter used by traditional talent pipelines (recruiters, HR), a larger percentage of candidates (60%) come from social networks and other non-traditional routes (hackathons, open innovation challenges, freelance contract projects).

These other pathways often give candidates a chance to show what they can do first, then present qualifications if necessary.

Employers are increasingly evaluating candidates without traditional degrees. These candidates will have assembled a “skills narrative” that includes online course certificates, uncertified private programs, portfolios of project work, freelance work and other un-accredited qualifications.

In the short term, this could increase the burden on employers to evaluate and validate skills – particularly in areas like IT, where some of the best candidates are coming through these new programs.

The upside is that these candidates know they have to prove themselves. Agile employers can work with this by using paid internships, temp-to-hire, and probationary periods with contingent compensation to evaluate the candidates in action.

Major professional service firms have responded to these trends by changing recruitment strategies to emphasise applied skills over credentials. For example, EY has now removed the requirement for a minimum degree classification for graduates, is hiding all details of schools and universities from the recruiters, and chooses applicants based on online tests.

So what’s the future going to look like?

Based on data gathered over the last decade of working with employers and educational institutions, we observe the following trends:

  • Degrees, certifications and grades will continue to matter less and less to employers
  • Portfolios that demonstrate relevant skills, and networks that validate/support those skills, will become more important
  • Employers, particularly SMEs, will increase collaboration with private providers offering project-based learning as a way to evaluate talent.
  • Private providers will become particularly important for mid-career transitions, upskilling and re-training.
  • The growth in ‘premium’ private providers targeting niche markets like web/mobile will increase substantially.
  • If state/federal government gets the policy mix right, there could be a decline in ‘generic’ private vocational providers and a re-focusing of the public institutions on mainstream trades, retraining and regional/low SES support.

For proactive and flexible students and employers, the future is bright. There are an increasing number of great ways to develop skills and demonstrate capability. Employers will be able to match skills to jobs at a more granular level.  Since these skills may not be relevant for very long, there will be more retraining and regular upskilling.

As more people actively participate in this ‘lifelong learning’, higher education institutions, public and private will respond with new offerings to fit the changing needs.

This article is a summary of a longer article covering disruptions in the higher education sector, originally published on Business/Higher Education Round Table.

Wes Sonnenreich is the Co-founder of Intersective, one of Australia’s leading EduTech companies, winning awards and grants from Accelerating Commercialisation, Study NSW, Tech23, the Business / Higher Education Roundtable and the NSW Office of Trade & Investment. Intersective helps educators improve the employability of their students. It provides online tools and associated services to deliver high quality Work Integrated Learning (WIL) at scale – from single internships to massive experiential learning programs. Its innovation programs are widely in use by leading corporate brands such as Deloitte, EY, IAG and Westpac, and universities such as USyd, UTS, QUT, Melbourne Business School, Macquarie University, Griffith University, Performance Education, Charles Darwin University, University of Queensland, RMIT, and UNSW. 

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