Today, there are many private colleges and universities. But the tertiary education process is still largely the same.

BACK when I went to university, there weren’t many choices when it came to tertiary education. If you weren’t able to get into a public university, you’d have to apply to study abroad. The situation has since changed dramatically.

Today, there are many private colleges and universities. But the tertiary education process is still largely the same. You select a field of study, you attend classes and make notes, you study and take exams, you graduate and with that paper qualification you apply for a job.

This is a tried and true way to secure gainful employment. But two things are happening that’s changing that dynamic for tertiary education. Firstly, the nature of jobs is changing rapidly and the current system isn’t churning out suitable graduates. Secondly, as it does with other facets of life, technology is causing major disruptions that will alter the way tertiary education is delivered.

Education advocates have been saying for decades that the education system needs to change. And change is finally starting to happen though it’s not the government that will take the lead but market forces.

Here are five predictions on how education will change over the course of the next decade.

1 Many options

It used to be that the educational institutions determine the options available to students. But increasingly, it has become a students’ market and they’re now in a much better position to set their own educational agenda. Online education, in particular, will give students far greater choices than before.

Students will be able to carve out a study programme that allows them to study at their own pace, anywhere they want. Best of all, they’re not limited to one provider. There’s no reason why a student can’t take courses from different online institutions and learn from a diverse range of providers.

Universities used to be all local but today we have several foreign universities with local campuses. That takes a huge amount of investment, though. Those with strong online arms can become global universities without actually having a campus in the countries they offer their courses in.

2 Degrees will be less important

Growing up, we have heard the mantra that “paper qualifications” are necessary to get a good job. While traditional degrees will still be needed for those careers which are strictly regulated like medicine, accountancy and law, for many of today’s jobs, however, an actual university degree may not be necessary. You don’t have to be an English or Journalism major to work as a writer (I don’t have either of those degrees).

Similarly, you don’t have to have a degree in graphic design to work in that field; or a culinary degree to become a successful chef. It’s how good you are that counts. And this will be increasingly true with most jobs.

This doesn’t mean that people don’t have to get trained anymore. It just doesn’t have to be framed in very narrow terms like a Bachelor’s Degree. In fact, for certain professions, it’s better not to go the traditional route to get an education. For example, a person who wants to work in social media marketing would do better to take online courses, which are constantly updated, than a university marketing course that cannot possibly be as up-to-date as the online ones.

These courses may not confer a degree per se but they certainly equip the student with the necessary knowledge to run successful social media campaigns for brands.

3 Continuous learning

A university education used to be just for young people. They’d usually be in their late teens or early 20s. They’re unlikely to be in their 30s and certainly not in their 40s. But why should that be? The reason in the past was that only young people with few obligations could afford to devote four years of their lives to attending classes. But that’s all changing with the advent of online courses. Now, anyone at any age can pick up new skill sets. And this is necessary because of how jobs are evolving.

Old industries are fading away while new ones are starting to boom. An example of the latter is the self-driving car industry. A friend, Kegan Gan, who is a father of three and works as an app developer, is taking a “Nanodegree” course from Udacity (www.udacity.com) that will train him to become a self-driving car engineer.

The course, which deals with topics like machine learning, computer vision, vehicle kinematics, sensor fusion and automotive hardware, was designed in collaboration with some of the most innovative brands in this area including Mercedes-Benz, Uber, BMW and McLaren. You could say he’s going back to school albeit in an online way.

Education should no longer be viewed as a one-time experience that people go through in their youth but a continuous journey of acquiring knowledge and skill sets to keep them relevant and marketable in an ever-changing job landscape.


There are sites like Udacity, which is nominally academic but very industry-focused.

4 Online learning

I’m a big fan of online learning, of which there are many types. Some are very informal and less academic in nature. These include Lynda.com and Udemy which offer practical instruction and whose teachers are usually drawn from the industry. You also have the more academic-oriented types like Khan Academy and Coursera, which focus more on academic topics. Then there are sites like Udacity, which is nominally academic but very industry-focused.

Although for sure there’s something to be said about in-person instruction, in many ways online courses are superior. For one thing, it gives you access to some of the best instructors in the world, something that would be hard — and certainly very expensive — to obtain in person. For example, I subscribe to an online judo instruction site called Superstarjudo.com which delivers video lessons by former world and Olympic champions. I get to learn from the best, watching them demonstrate their techniques in high definition, slow motion and from multiple angles. It’s even better than attending a live seminar where you might miss something because it happened too fast.

5 The hybrid institution

The rise of online education systems won’t render physical institutions obsolete. There’ll always be a need for university campuses for a variety of reasons. Students meeting up to work on projects together is an important part of the university experience. Lab work still needs a physical presence; extra-curricular activities too.

Don’t forget, going to university has never always been about studies only. It’s at university that you get to meet people from all walks of life, from different social, economic and religious backgrounds — far more so than you would when you enter the workforce. And it’s at universities that you form the early beginnings of your future business networks. Some of the people you meet in university could be the ones you work with or do business with in the future.

So, the physical institution is useful and important for a student’s overall development. That’s why going forward, more and more institutions will adopt a hybrid model whereby they offer some instruction through digital and online means but have on-campus components to facilitate for things that cannot be done online.

Revolutionising education is something long-talked about in theoretical terms with very little change taking effect due to the “If ain’t broke, why fix it?” mentality. This kept tertiary education, in particular, stuck in limbo for decades. But the problem is that today, the old way is broke and will clearly not be able to cater for the rapidly changing global economy.

For sure, some institutions will falter and experience the “Kodak moment”. There’ll be some casualties among those which either cannot or refuse to keep pace with the changes. I suspect though that many will rise to the challenge, seize the opportunities that digital transformation of education can offer and thrive in the new environment.

Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experiences in print, online and mobile media. reach him at oonyeoh@gmail.com

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