The future of education?

2019-06-30 12:10
University study is said to prepare students to be flexible learners.

University study is said to prepare students to be flexible learners.

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You may end up with new friends, rowdy memories and the realisation that you can survive on three hours’ sleep while eating only rice and beans — but do you really get your money’s worth getting a tertiary qualification?

A job drought because of an ailing economy, topped off by the possibility of having a mountain of student debt after studying, could be making South African youngsters think twice about taking on the traditional tertiary route, especially as many as 57% of urban South African parents are not saving for their children’s education, research by Old Mutual showed.

The job market itself is shifting, as is the way people learn skills, and dynamic and ever-changing workplaces mean employees themselves have to constantly upskill to stay useful to their companies.

And a prospective employee’s persona plays a role in their worth now more than ever, with social media presence and ventures online (for better or worse) being taken into account by employers.

Enter advancements in technology paving the way for anyone to be able to learn pretty much anything online and creating new avenues for people to take reputable courses — both free or costing a fraction of a traditional qualification — via correspondence.

The Internet also offers the ability to present a portfolio of work on a personal website, which is becoming increasingly necessary as the freelance — or “gig” — economy takes off.

The necessity of tertiary education is a hot topic worldwide, and whether that piece of paper you’re awarded after three or four years of toil is really worth as much today as it once was. Graduates being crushed under the weight of exorbitant student loans is one of the main drivers of this feeling.

A recent survey by PPS, a financial services company, found that new South African graduates were concerned about finding employment.

UKZNs Pietermaritzburg campus.  Photo.Ian Carbutt

The survey, part of their student confidence index, found that nearly 40% of graduates were concerned they would not be hired immediately after completing their studies.

The most positive graduates were those in accounting and the legal fields.

Interestingly, the survey found that just 27% of students wanted to pursue postgraduate qualifications, while 40% were keen on going into the job market after studying. Some 84% cited cost as the main prohibitor.

“This differs from previous years and could be the result of the tougher economy where the general sentiment among students is to enter the workforce — and earn a living — sooner,” explained PPS’s Motshabi Nomvethe.

The survey also found that 42% of graduates felt skilled professionals found it difficult to find appropriate jobs, with some convinced that moving overseas was the solution.

Traditional higher education is still in high demand

A tertiary degree allows people to learn how to be a flexible learner and adapt to new circumstances, says Professor Ahmed Bawa, the CEO of Universities South Africa.

Bawa said the demand for traditional universities is not going down, and the government planned to get tertiary institution participation up by 2030 as part of the National Development Plan.

“There are always questions being asked about university and whether it is worthwhile, but South Africa has a unique situation where unemployment of graduates is about six percent — way below the average of the 25 to 30-year-old age group.”

He said, however, that interest in private vocational colleges and online learning would likely increase over time, saying: “The public sector can’t meet all the demand by itself.”

UKZNs Pietermaritzburg campus.  Photo.Ian Carbutt

Bawa said the traditional model of higher education was still crucial because it developed the person in addition to offering education. “The big advantage is it prepares you to be a flexible learner and adapt to new circumstances.

“It is important to be able to pick up new skills, and that ability is becoming more critical as we head up to the fourth industrial revolution.”

But recruiters are seeing the situation differently

Bridget Jones, managing director of local recruitment firm Pronel, says employers were still picky when it came to selecting qualified people.

She told Weekend Witness that some companies would even tell their staff which tertiary institutions they’d prefer their candidates to come from.

“Many corporates still say a tertiary qualification is necessary because they get a high number of applicants so the criteria needs to be stricter.

“Families think getting a degree will give their child a massive leg-up, but tragically they may just end up getting stuck with student loans and few job prospects. If companies don’t believe in the quality of your institution, they won’t want you. But this isn’t a blanket rule.”

Jones said, however, that industries like IT and creative sectors were generally more open-minded with applicants, since it was possible for people in these fields to prove competency or have portfolios of evidence.

“It’s easier to test competency in an industry like IT because there are yes or no answers.

“So if a candidate can’t get past problem x, then they won’t move on.”

She said another problem was that students went into fields which were too saturated, like humanities and social sciences.

She said local companies could “afford to be fussy” with applicants for now because the job market was not totally ready to recognise prior learning, like with learning something online. “But the creative and IT fields are less fussy,” Jones said.

We need to question the old way of thinking about how skills are gained

Analysts agreed that the shift in technology, which allowed for independent learning online, as well as heavy student debt, was also being seen locally. They, however, felt that South Africa’s job market may not be ready to accommodate this shift because it was still stuck in the traditional way of thinking what should be expected of employees. 

UKZNs Pietermaritzburg campus.  Photo.Ian Carbutt

Tech guru Arthur Goldstuck said South Africans were taking to using online resources in lieu of traditional qualifications, but said a degree was still seen as the “holy grail”.

“Online qualifications are still not taken seriously in this country. For example, there is a skills shortage in IT, but employers still want very specific qualifications.”

He said that if a person could produce a portfolio of proof that they can do the work, the situation may be different.

“We are seeing two flaws in the system: the first is not enough spaces in universities, and the second is it’s hard to get work experience and yet so many jobs require that.

“But the problem is that some online qualifications are seen as ‘fake’.”

Goldstuck said in the gig economy — where freelancers pair up with companies — the situation was a bit different, since it was more about what someone can do rather than what they’re qualified in.

Dawie Roodt, an economist at the Efficient Group, agreed that employers still believed qualification was king, but predicted a “disruption” of that thinking in the coming years. He said research showed that qualified people earned about double those with just matric, which suggested employers were still interested in qualified people.

“When I grew up, we were bombarded with the message that you must get a qualification. But a qualification does not always mean acquiring skills to be able to be useful in your field.

“There are these technological changes taking place and I believe that’s the way the world will change. The business model of local higher education is 1 000 years old and it will get disrupted by people going for shorter courses.”

Roodt added that workplaces were ever-changing, meaning an employee had to continue learning new skills while on the job.

He said student debt was a factor in graduates’ lives, but said its more about a slow economy and the lack of jobs rather than a complete inability to pay off loans.

Roodt added: “Some good universities charge exorbitant fees, but does it really mean there’s better education? Actually, what’s more important is that contacts are made at these universities.

“Rich people send their kids there and it’s not what you learn, but who you learn to know.”

So you want to study online

1. Do your homework: If you find a field of study that you like, search widely on who may be offering qualifications. Take your time with this process.

Only trust courses offered by recognised universities. If you find something suitable which is on other sources, try to research how seriously their qualification is taken. Try to get an idea of how that particular field values online qualifications.

2. Try before you buy: Try to find ways to get a taster of the course. Let’s say you want to learn computer programming: learn a bit about it using resources like YouTube and GitHub, and try it out for a while to see if you have an affinity for it.

3. Check out the testimonials: Are there hundreds of thousands of people endorsing the course? Does it have an overall rating of four-and-a-half stars?

This is a good starting point, but thorough research into the course being offered is still necessary.

4. Understand that this route is tough: Apart from having to be disciplined, you’ll have to brace yourself for frustration. You’ll likely hit a few brick walls with your course content, and the inability to ask questions as you would face-to-face is another hindrance.

5. Have a concrete idea of where you see yourself in the future: Don’t take courses on a whim. Have a vision of where you want it to take you, then you’ll be better positioned both to select a course and to make your move once the course is done.

Saving for education has to be a long-term effort

Priya Naicker of Old Mutual, advises that parents have a long-term savings plan for their children’s higher education.

She says that as many as 57% of urban South African parents are not saving for their children’s education.

The cost of higher education per year is between R60 000 and R70 000, and could rise to R165 600 by 2030 and R255 000 by 2035 because of inflation. Living expenses, accommodation and study material can add another R20 000 on top of that.

Naicker advises parents to start saving as early as possible, that way the interest that is gained on the savings can possibly beat inflation.

1. Naicker says savings can start from as little as R250 per month. “This means that by simply cutting out eight coffees per month, you can start saving for your child’s education.”

2. She advises putting the savings in a tax-free savings account, where all the money made on the growth of the investment will not be subject to tax so long as it is within a certain limit. “Because you can open a tax-free savings account for each of your children, a family of four can save up to R132 000 annually in this way.”

3. Another option is using a unit trust. “Although exposure to market fluctuations means there’s some risk involved, the advantage is that you can access your money at any stage, increase and decrease your contributions, and add lump sums without incurring penalties.”

4. Naicker also advises trying to find additional sources of income, like letting out spare rooms or using your skills to gain extra income on the side.

5. Studying part-time while working, is another way to make tertiary education more affordable, Naicker says, adding that online courses are “an increasingly attractive option”.

6. Choose a plan, and stick to it, says Naicker. “Rather than being panicked into inaction, empower yourself with information and ensure your financial plan mirrors your financial priorities.”


Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  higher education

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