Reimagining degrees to increase equity, access and job readiness

Meru University of Science and Technology Chancellor Dr James Mwangi, VC Prof Romanus Odhiambo during the institution's 9th graduation. [Phares Mutembei, Standard]

Higher education institutions worldwide are undergoing unprecedented digital transformation accelerated by the pandemic. Meanwhile, Covid-19 has also exacerbated pre-existing gender gaps and worsened employment prospects for many young people. Youth employment fell by 8.7 per cent in 2020, more than twice the rate for adults aged 25 and above.

Broadening access to education, however, can unlock economic opportunities. Higher education attainment increases employment rates, job security and lifetime earnings.

In this economic landscape where full global economic recovery remains elusive and uneven, students need access to skills-first learning opportunities that prepare them to enter the modern workforce. It’s more important than ever for higher education – including delivery, admissions and curriculum – to enable socioeconomic mobility through equitable access.

Higher education institutions must leverage technology and reimagine degree programmes to increase access and equity while equipping students with the necessary skills to find jobs.

Leverage technology for affordable and accessible degree programmes

Advances in technology and online learning, in particular, have revolutionised the way universities can deliver higher education. For example, course enrollments on Coursera doubled in 2020 and increased by 32 per cent in 2021. Universities are scaling online degree programmes to reach learners across the globe and meet the growing demand.

Online learning technology opens doors to the world’s best universities for students worldwide and higher education institutions can use this to their benefit. IIT Roorkee, ranked one of the best institutes in India, offers an online Post Graduate Certificate in Data Science and Machine Learning. More than half (55 per cent) of the programme’s students live outside India. Students span 14 countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. More than a quarter of their students are from the United States.

Universities can also broaden access by unbundling master’s and bachelor’s degrees into open online courses and stackable credentials. By using open content to acquire students for online degree programmes at a lower cost, universities can pass those savings to their students. For example, Colombia’s Universidad de los Andes offers an online MSc in Software Engineering that is 30 per cent more affordable than on-campus master’s degrees by the university’s Uniandes Engineering School.

Artificial intelligence (AI) offers another avenue for universities to develop programmes at scale at an affordable price. In the University of Michigan’s Master of Applied Data Science programme in the United States, faculty and staff implemented auto graders to save time and streamline lab management.

The cloud infrastructure also allowed the university to lower staff and DevOps costs. Besides boosting efficiency, AI technology can also identify students needing one-on-one support to improve student outcomes.

Build job-relevant programmes for hands-on skills development

Amid the rapid digital transformation of the labour market, universities must evolve their programmes to meet emerging workforce demands. By leveraging data-driven market research, such as the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report, universities can identify which degree programmes are most in-demand based on job growth and align those programmes with job outcomes.

Degree programmes must equip students with skills and allow them to practice using them to succeed in the job market. The University of Michigan’s Master of Applied Data Science hosts more than 150 cloud-based labs and assignments across 30-plus degree courses. Degree students can access a pre-configured, in-browser Jupyter Notebook environment with high-computing resources, persistent storage and real-world data sets.

The Queen Mary University of London in the United Kingdom recently launched an online Master of Science in Applied Data Analytics to address the needs of today’s global workforce. The degree programme prepares students for data scientist and data analytics roles, identified by the Forum as the number one emerging job. Hands-on projects help students apply their skills and build a portfolio of work.

Coursera data shows that hands-on projects and programming assignments can drive a 30 per cent higher rate of skill development and gains in learner satisfaction and career outcomes.

Increase equity by removing admission barriers

Many higher education institutions are removing application requirements to foster a more diverse student population.

The United States’ University of Colorado Boulder’s three online graduate programmes offer performance-based admissions. Students gain admission by completing a performance pathway – a series of three one-credit courses with at least a 3.0 cumulative grade point average (GPA). No applications, entrance exams, transcripts or fees are required.

The university’s first online Master of Science in Electrical Engineering graduate didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. Instead, he used his five-plus years of industry experience at leading tech companies such as Apple and Intel, paired with knowledge gained through open course content, to complete the programme in one year. Over the last year, the university saw a 30 per cent growth in this programme’s admitted students.

To better serve underrepresented populations, the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign removed standardised test requirements from several online degree programmes. Its Online Master's of Accounting (iMSA) alone saw a three-fold increase in started applications after removing the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) requirement, typically used by business schools to assess reading, writing, analytical, quantitative and verbal skills.

The programmes on Coursera also saw a 73 per cent year-on-year growth in underrepresented degree students in 2021.

Some universities are creating degree pathways using content from industry educators. Learners can take the Google IT Support Professional Certificate to prepare for entry-level jobs in IT in less than six months. They can then stack the certificate into a full degree – often a requirement for management roles.

Thirty-four percent of students currently in the University of London Bachelor of Science in Computer Science in the United Kingdom programme took the Google IT programme. Many continue to work while pursuing their degrees.

This approach shows promising results in reaching underrepresented populations as 58 per cent of the Google IT programme’s US participants identified as veterans, females, or Black or Latinx.

Programmes such as these develop highly-qualified graduates accustomed to learning and working remotely while creating a more diverse hiring pool for global companies.
Fast-paced digital transformation and the Covid-19 crisis have brought unprecedented challenges to the global workforce.

By rethinking the delivery of online degrees, higher education institutions can pave the way for equal access to affordable, job-relevant, skills-first degree programmes for people worldwide.