Google courses promise a shortcut to high-paying jobs. What does it mean for skills training, universities and meritocracy?
“Google plan to replace the need for college degrees with six-month certificates”. That was the catchy headline of an article last week on the iflscience website which has been shared almost 50,000 times in just a few days.
“Google plan to replace the need for college degrees with six-month certificates”.
That was the catchy headline of an article last week on the iflscience website which has been shared almost 50,000 times in just a few days.
It was referring to Google’s recent launch of a new suite of career certificates that the tech giant says will help Americans without university degrees get jobs in “high-paying, high-growth” fields such as data analytics, project management and user experience design.
Noting that degrees are “out of reach” for many Americans, Google said it will provide 100,000 need-based scholarships to equip participants with skills through courses that it has developed.
It is perhaps not surprising that the initiative has created some buzz online, given its promise of upskilling low-wage workers to help them get better jobs and the question it raises on whether one should still spend three or four years going through university.
These are pertinent to Singapore, particularly given the focus on jobs in the current crisis and how its meritocracy can evolve in today’s fast-changing digital world.
CAN A VAN DRIVER BECOMES AN IT TECHNICIAN?
So let’s address the first-order question: Will the likes of Google’s six-month skills training programme mark the start of the end of university education?
The short answer is no.
Google’s certificates are very specialised and prepare participants for a very specific role/job. These are pathways to pursue specific jobs/careers without the need to go through formal university education.
Google’s initiative builds on its IT certificate programme launched in 2018 that it says has become the most popular certificate on online learning platform Coursera. Google says the programme has already helped thousands find new jobs and increased their earnings.
It cites a powerful example of how a van driver became an IT helpdesk technician at a non-profit organisation in Washington DC just five days after completing its programme.
So will the same idea work here for Singapore’s gig economy and blue-collar workers such as security guards or food delivery riders?
Yes, provided they are willing to retrain, upskill and get out of their comfort zone. This is sometimes easier said than done.
It is not a case about a lack of access per se. The Google courses are not exactly costly and since they are available online on Coursera, anyone in Singapore can sign up for them.
Furthermore, Singapore’s SkillsFuture initiative already offers such opportunities that could help to level the playing field for those who are less academically inclined.
In fact, the most popular SkillsFuture courses are related to infocomm technology (ICT), including Alibaba Global Course (Data Analytics – Intermediate) and Appreciation of Internet of Things and Data Management (Advanced Manufacturing – Basic).
There is actually a plethora of such ICT courses on various other online learning platforms such as Udemy that qualify for SkillsFuture credits too.
To be sure, more Singaporeans and enterprises are tapping SkillsFuture initiatives and such short focused skill-based certificates will likely grow in popularity if they lead to good-paying jobs without the need for academic qualifications.
WHAT NEXT FOR UNIVERSITIES?
The next question then is: If such training becomes more common to help workers learn skills and get better pay, what role will universities play in the future?
Is it preparing undergraduates to be in the workforce in general or to be in specific industries?
Universities provide a holistic education. It is not only about teaching specific skills for a specific job.
Undergraduates are taught to prepare for working life and to be adaptable. They learn both hard skills as well as the soft skills needed for the workplace.
This has long been the case and will continue to be so.
I recall that as early as in the mid-1980s when I started my three-year training as a chartered accountant with KPMG in England, many of those training to become chartered accountants were not accounting graduates.
Instead, they had studied law, economics, English and other disciplines.
The training to be an accountant and the skills required were taught during the three-year work training period. Universities were not expected to produce ready-made accountants; that was the responsibility of the profession, be it employers, professional bodies or private training institutions.
Google’s certificate courses are therefore not entirely new in the sense, though it is innovative in that instead of training being a cost, it has turned it into a revenue generator.
Where does that leave universities then?
Well, they can offer more short courses on specific topics under the SkillsFuture initiative and allow these course credits to count towards obtaining a degree.
We can see a future where anyone can attend skills training courses (without academic prerequisites) and accumulate university credits.
The result is a pathway to obtaining a degree without depending on pre-university grades or mandating that a degree be completed within a fixed timeframe.
This also allows people to obtain a degree at their own pace and encourages life-long learning.
Employers today want not only workers with the required skills to do their work. They want employees who are adaptable to changing scenarios and environments.
It is a big task and universities are well aware of the challenges this pose to them in providing a holistic education to their students.
So Singapore universities now are encouraging dual degrees and inter-disciplinary degrees.
They also rely less on grades now for admission, using other criteria such as project work, co-curricular activities and other relevant experience. Other universities award PhDs based on published works instead of a dissertation or research.
However, universities have still not dispensed with their own academic rating differentiation and still offer different grades.
There could be some merit in classifying the students into pass/fail and pass with distinction only to mark a greater shift away from grades.
All in all, initiatives such as those by Google benefit society by providing pathways for those who do not possess formal academic qualification to have a shot at a better job, thus improving social mobility and enabling a fairer meritocracy.
At the recent opening of the 14th Parliament, President Halimah Yacob spoke about how meritocracy has served Singapore well since independence, but it must evolve in tandem with the nation’s development so that citizens can remain socially mobile.
This is why there has been a concerted effort both in and out of the Government to value a wide range of talents, given the need for Singapore to broaden its conception of merit, she noted.
Indeed, I would say that Singapore has traditionally associated meritocracy too narrowly with academic excellence.
For many years, those who excelled in their studies were rewarded with prestigious scholarships and groomed for leadership positions both in and outside government.
I am glad things are changing.
Today’s world is driven by knowledge and skills. Rapid digital advances means that the workforce has to constantly reskill, thus the Government’s strong push for skills upgrading with the SkillsFuture initiative.
Universities are redeveloping curriculums and also thinking about how best they can help tomorrow’s workers meet the needs of employers.
As the model of meritocracy is evolving, so too must the model of university education.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr Ameen Talib is head of applied projects at the School of Business, Singapore University of Social Sciences. He was previously a businessman, running a restaurant and a consultancy firm.