Google is still to con­vince on its univer­sity chal­lenge

Google takes on the uni­ver­si­ties with a move into higher ed­u­ca­tion and pro­fes­sional cer­ti­fi­ca­tion

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Front Page - Han­nah Boland

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

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