Will COVID-19 cause skills training to replace university degrees?

Alex Fleming looks at the new ways young people are developing skills for the workplace. 

At the start of the year, few would have predicted that before the start of summer we wouldn’t just be battling with a global pandemic, but that our daily lives would be changed beyond recognition. Going to town for some casual shopping, socialising with big groups of friends at the pub and even having an in-person meeting with colleagues seems like a distant memory.

While these are just some examples of the (more trivial) impact COVID-19 is having, there’s no doubt that its legacy will continue to shape the world we live and work in for years to come.

One obvious example of this shift will be in our working patterns, where we will likely see a rise in flexible and home working, even now that some people are returning to the office. However, the impact won’t just be limited to those already employed, it will also result in changes for those on their way into the world of work, including in terms of how they acquire employability skills.  

Traditionally, the ‘university experience’ and the diploma have been seen as the golden ticket into adult life. Even before the pandemic however, more and more people were choosing an alternative kind of education.

For some employers, skills were becoming more important than a graduation certificate. A trend that will likely be accelerated as a result of the current crisis.

The changing skills tide

There’s no denying that earning a university certificate is essential to many vocations. Teaching, medicine, architecture and law are all examples where the college or university degree reigns supreme.

While universities will continue to play an important role in our education systems, there’s no denying that COVID-19 will change the way in which people learn new skills.

However, the rising cost of a degree and the resulting crippling debt for many graduates has meant that, in recent years, some students have been looking elsewhere to educate themselves and enter the job market. 

With economists speculating that the recession caused by COVID-19 could be worse than the 2008 financial crisis, even those students who were previously undeterred by the cost of university will likely reconsider their route into employment.

Especially because the current situation provides a stark reminder that certain skills that are fundamental to success at work, like resilience, adaptability and attitude, aren’t taught in most university courses.

At the same time, social distancing has meant that many more people have been trying out online learning courses. Since dropping its subscription fees for students Rosetta Stone, for example, has added 10,000 to 20,000 new users each day.

With a large part of the population experiencing the many different and engaging ways in which skills can be acquired, it’s unlikely there will be a complete return to more traditional education.


From a business perspective, COVID-19 is just the latest in a series of challenges – whether that’s Brexit or the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) – highlighting the need for them to be able to quickly fill skills gaps and create a workforce with skills tailored to their specific needs.

While research by McKinsey suggested that those without a university degree will be hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis, universities are not necessarily the answer to this challenge.

Unlike a decade ago, today there are many different ways for people to acquire the skills they need; and the current environment will likely provide the impetus for people and employers to fully embrace these alternatives to the university degree.

Taking alternative paths to education and skills

Investing in targeted, bite-sized chunks of education is just one alternative way in which people have been trying to acquire the skills they need to get a job. Being more prescriptive by creating their own curriculum means they save time, money and they emerge from their studies with a more specialised skillset. 

These bite-size courses began life as coding workshops but the number and variety of micro-credentials available are growing. The Institute of Coding, a UK-based initiative, lists hundreds of competency-based micro-credentials that are awarded by over 100 industry partners, ranging from employers, the government and universities. 


A more dynamic workforce 

One of the most attractive aspects of alternative education is that a more diverse set of people can benefit from it. Some employers are actively seeking employees with a less traditional educational background because they end up with a more diverse workforce as a result, and this brings a wider range of ideas to the table.

They can also pick and choose specialists depending on their company’s needs. More than ever people who may be equally skilled, but not able to have the privilege of attending university, can successfully compete in the job market.  

While universities will continue to play an important role in our education systems, there’s no denying that COVID-19 will change the way in which people learn new skills. In an uncertain economic environment, with new emerging skills shortages, both businesses and students will be looking for quicker, more cost-effective and engaging ways to get relevant skills.

As people are increasingly experiencing the flexibility and effectiveness of skills training while self-isolating, there’s no doubt it will become firmly established as a viable alternative to a university education.


About the author

Alex Fleming is president and country head for the Adecco Group in the U.K. and Ireland.


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