Google is still to convince on its university challenge
Google takes on the universities with a move into higher education and professional certification
There aren’t many areas of our lives left undisturbed by Google. From how we live to how we work, the sprawling tech giant has disrupted countless industries – and now, it has its sights set on universities.
Earlier this summer, the company said it would offer an alternative to standard university degrees: Google Career Certificates, which teach specific skills to help people find employment quickly.
Instead of taking years to finish, they can be completed in just three to six months, and at around $49 (£37.20) per month, or $300 for a six-month course, they cost just a fraction of the price of a traditional degree.
They would, Google has said, “equip participants with the essential skills they need to get a job”, offering a separate path for those for whom university degrees are out of reach.
When John Bryson, a University of Birmingham professor, heard about Google’s plans, he did a quick test.
He thought a good gauge of how much demand there could be for the Google model would be his 17-year-old son who was beginning to think about the UCAS process and was planning to apply for a computer science degree.
Bryson says his response was “quite sensible”. “He asked whether employers would recognise that as a qualification of similar standing, whether the qualification would be recognised in 10, 15 or 20 years time.”
His thinking was “who knows what’s going to happen to Google”. A university, on the other hand, would seem a safer bet. “Will the university of Harvard, Cambridge and Birmingham be here in 500 years time? Perhaps, if human civilisation is here,” Bryson says. “Will Google? That I don’t know.”
Google will be hoping there are enough people who think differently, particularly as the coronavirus pandemic has left many students without the in-person tuition or social atmosphere they had hoped for as part of their university experience.
If its forays into healthcare, advertising and, more recently, primary and secondary education, show anything, it is that the company should not be underestimated.
Google Career Certificates do offer clear advantages. For one thing, they would provide students with specific skills for specific roles.
“An intensive applied course might be as good a preparation for a career as a data analyst/scientist as studying something like economics,” says Julian Ashwin, a PhD candidate in economics at the University of Oxford. “I can’t really imagine it would replace an academic course if you’re interested in becoming an economist, which I am”.
Perhaps more importantly, Google’s programme could finally address the huge barriers to entry for university degrees. In the US, the average tuition fee cost for universities is $132,860 (£100,793), according to Times Higher Education – more than 300 times the cost of a Google’s Career Certificate.
The company says, when it is hiring people, it will count the course as equivalent to a four-year degree.
Although the programme is initially launching in the US, there are signs such a scheme would also benefit people in the UK, where last year, the gap between rich and poor students going to university hit its widest point for more than a decade.
At Britain’s top institutions, there is a significant chasm. Students accepted by Oxford and Cambridge university are 15 times more likely to have come from the UK’s richest regions than its poorest, according to data from the Office for Students. Undergraduate degrees in the UK can cost students anywhere between £35,000 and £40,000, taking into account tuition fees and maintenance loans, for accommodation and living expenses.
Yet, experts warn schemes such as Google’s could lead to a “two-tier system”. “Are we saying the three year on-campus degree is only for the privileged?” asks Kay Hack, from Advance HE. “Universities are really providing an all-around package.”
Students may, however, now be considering an alternative to universities, following a furore over A Level results this summer which left many disillusioned by the system.
Questions remain over whether students opting for the scheme would have more difficulty in finding roles in the future. Prospective students would want to know which organisations would accept such certifications, aside from Google. Bryson is not convinced: “Within the 40 or 50 year career of an individual, having flexibility in the marketplace is going to be critical.”
Google may hand its courses equal weight, yet it clearly has some way to go to convince others. Among the students of tomorrow and university professors, there is some scepticism.
“You’d hope potential applicants understand the importance of the reputation of the educational provider,” Bryson says. “You’d hope that they would do some Googling.”
Traditional universities such as Cambridge have already passed the test of time