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DIY Education: What will universities of the future look like?

Updated: Dec 23, 2021

Is the 4-year degree obsolete? Rui Ferreira looks at our rapidly changing world to ask some 21st-century questions to a 19th-century education system.

According to the recent Global Learner Study (May 2019) by Pearson, one of the world’s leading education product development companies, confidence in educational institutions is wavering. In a sample of 11,000 learners (aged 16-70), 61% of them do not believe that colleges are teaching the right skills for today's job market.

However, the same research also shows that most of the students believe that higher education is still important. The question is how will these figures look post-Covid, as many disillusioned students aren’t even attending class?

There is no arguing the fact that the evolution of humankind still depends on deep lab research, as we have seen with our worldwide necessity for an emergency vaccine. No machine or AI can replace the skilled scientist in a laboratory. But does the general population still need to learn biology, calculus, fluid dynamics, ancient history, anthropology, management theory, and so on?

That said, the university, as we have known it for centuries, is crucial for providing students with hard skills - technical knowledge provided by training and memorisation - everything that a student can train to do, through memory, repetition and exercise is considered a hard skill because it requires discipline and method. Technology is already mimicking and replicating these skills, but we are not at the point of replacing humans with machines. Yet.

Following that premise, and to rephrase the opening paragraph of this article, the majority of the students surveyed believe that universities are not providing them with 21st-century skills. In fact, 45% of students in Europe believe their education did not prepare them for their career.

So, what are the skills needed in the 21st-century that classic universities are not providing?

The keyword is soft-skills: relationship and communication; empathy; creativity; collaboration; critical thinking; functional and practical applied problem solving; and behavioural skills.

Soft skills are often undervalued in the majority of formal curricula, where theory and memorisation reign supreme. Most university programs do not include soft-skills training (or methods) in their existing courses – something that could easily be augmented with the addition of certified courses either in addition to or in exchange of existing ones.

It’s not that universities are oblivious to this emergent need. It is actually a trending topic in the academic universe right now, driven not only by the forces that the present labour market exerts but also the rapidly changing digital world. It’s no secret that change is painfully slow at the institutional level, and “classical university” thinking is still predominant. But academia is trying hard to cope with the fast-paced changes of the world today, facing a lot of limitations and barriers.

In the regulated higher education market, priority is still to guarantee that the student acquires hard skills at the core of each diploma, and by law in most countries, schools have very little flexibility to change and adapt their programs in response to these specific needs.

On top of that, traditional universities are facing serious competition from the non-regulated market of education, with credible and resourceful institutions and companies offering highly specialised short courses and certifications. The Pearson study found that among EU students, if they could do it again, only 59% of them would still go to university, with 30% preferring technical training instead. Globally, 68% believe vocational or trade schools are more likely to lead to a good-paying job than a university degree. These are frightening figures for the establishment.

Although restrained, some progress has already been made. Many universities are taking action and adopting new methodologies of teaching, creating new initiatives and learning opportunities, and rethinking the way they are producing the future workforce.

The student-centred future

In the future, fully immersive learning experiences will no longer be a perk, but an urgent necessity that universities need to tackle. Institutions will need to focus more and more on applied education and create learning environments that approach the real world in ways that traditional learning methods sometimes can’t.

In that sense, blending traditional and non-traditional teaching methods will become the norm, where student-centred learning will be essential, shifting the focus of instruction from the teacher to the student.

By definition, it puts students' interests first, acknowledging the student voice as central to the learning experience. Ultimately, it aims to develop learner autonomy and independence by putting responsibility for the learning path in the hands of students, imparting them with soft skills and a strong basis of how to learn a specific subject.

21st-century questions

• With our rapidly changing digital world and the rise of the ‘gig-economy’ and auto-entrepreneurs, are university degrees becoming obsolete?

• Do employers still look for formal university degree holders, as they did in the past, or are they looking for skilful and up-to-date workmanship, with a diverse portfolio and skill-set?

• Does a bachelor or technical degree holder looking to step up their career in a specific field or start their own business need a higher degree when they can get a world-class, 30h online certification in a relevant topic?

From the Pearson Global Survey:

Making education ‘DIY’

Student-centred instruction focuses on skills and practices that enable lifelong learning and independent problem-solving, emphasising the learner's critical role in constructing meaning from new information and prior experience.

Self-service or ‘DIY’ education—meaning tailor-made curriculums—will be the next big thing. In the future, students will choose what they will learn, how they pace their learning, and how they will assess their own learning, requiring students to be active participants. In this sense, student-centred learning focuses on each student's interests, abilities, and learning styles, placing the teacher as a facilitator of learning for individuals rather than the class as a whole.

Our fast-paced and ever-changing 21st-century world requires all of us to “Upskill” or continue learning over time and with a global perspective, acquiring knowledge and skills in new and different contexts and fields, including company employees. The results of the Global Learner Survey support this: “The traditional, linear career path is a thing of the past. People are moulding learning and work into what they need it to be in today’s world, which means life-long learning and diverse career paths.”

The implementation of training programs for active people will be an emergent need and requires a robust and holistic investment from both the public and private sector to design training programs not only at the university level but also at the workplace, as well as more systematic and streamlined collaboration and coordination between businesses and higher education institutions. If institutional universities want to survive the 21st-century, they need to take note!

University of… YouTube


Besides the huge amount of great educational content the internet provides students, digital platforms open many other possibilities and learning opportunities. For instance, teachers today often hear students saying “I learned that on YouTube”.

A non-scientific article posted by educational content creators on YouTube showed that the “go back” is the most used feature in their videos. Why? Because traditional classes were designed to teach ‘en masse’. This can often lead to individual students being left behind, punishing those who are unable to understand a certain exercise at the first or second explanation. YouTube allows the student to come back and repeat information as many times as he/she needs. That might be something that universities should pay attention to in the future.

-Rui Ferreira

Rui is a marketer and writer, passionate about strategy, innovation and creativity in every form. Currently, he is working in educational management both as a project manager and a facilitator in Higher-education institutions, bringing together companies, academia and students for innovative co-creation.

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*This article originally featured in our Jan/Feb/Mar 2021 School Special.

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