University education as an unequivocal gateway to the future is undergoing a profound reassessment.
By Johan Steyn, 18 October 2023
In an era where artificial intelligence (AI) is rapidly reshaping the world, traditional norms and paradigms are being challenged on multiple fronts. The age-old belief that a university education is an unequivocal gateway to a successful future is now undergoing a profound reassessment.
As a parent, I find myself at a crossroads, confronted with a decision that might seem unconventional to some: I have chosen not to send my young son to university one day. This choice is not driven by a disregard for education as such, but rather by a profound belief that the landscape of learning and career opportunities has evolved dramatically, and with it so too must our approach to education.
The traditional model of a four-year university education often struggles to keep up with the rapid evolution of skills and knowledge demanded by the job market. As a result, the future relevance of the university degree is increasingly being questioned. Many industries now value adaptability, continuous learning, and practical skills acquisition over formal degrees.
In the modern age, where alternative learning opportunities such as online courses, vocational training and apprenticeships are gaining recognition, the cost of a traditional university degree can be a significant financial burden. Weighing the potential earnings and career prospects against the substantial debt that often accompanies a degree is a crucial factor influencing our decision.
The duration of traditional degrees often stands as a significant roadblock to timely skills acquisition and career readiness. The standard undergraduate path of three to four years in pursuit of a bachelor's degree may have served its purpose in the past, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that this time frame is ill-suited for the demands of the modern job market.
In the time it takes to complete a traditional degree, entire industries can rise and fall, and new technologies can become outdated. This lag in education can leave graduates grappling with a stark reality: their hard-earned knowledge may no longer be as relevant as it once was.
Confinement or choice?
The problem with career guidance, as it stands today, lies in the expectation that 18-year-olds should make lifelong decisions about their career paths. At that age, individuals are often still in the process of self-discovery and have limited exposure to the multifaceted world of work. Such early choices can be influenced by external pressures, societal expectations, or a lack of awareness about alternatives.
The notion that teenagers can confidently select a career path that will remain fulfilling and sustainable is increasingly unrealistic. Allowing young adults more time for exploration, experiential learning and personal growth before making critical career decisions could lead to better-informed choices and increased career satisfaction in the long run.
Another issue with traditional education is that it often falls short in teaching young people how to think critically and independently. While it emphasises the acquisition of facts and knowledge, it may neglect to nurture essential skills such as problem-solving, creative thinking and the ability to question and challenge conventional wisdom.
I often ask myself: In the information age, why do we teach students to memorise facts? Why do we teach things that can be Google-ed? Rote memorisation and standardised testing can prioritise regurgitation over comprehension, stifling students’ capacity to explore diverse perspectives and develop a deeper understanding of the world.
• Steyn is a human-centred AI advocate and thought leader. He is the founder of AIforBusiness.net.