alternatives to university

Lessons from COVID-19: we shouldn’t wait for universities to reinvent themselves

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The arrival of a ‘New Normal’ is being touted in all industries and sectors of society. The way we work, how we socialise, and how our societies function at a basic level have been changed by the far-reaching effects of COVID-19  – and universities across the globe have been struck by this same wave of disruption. 

As professorial lecturer and university education specialist, Eric R. Terzuolo, outlined in a recent Quillette article, COVID-19 will be a force of considerable change for tertiary education institutions around the world. However, as we will argue, these changes are something that students can’t afford to wait for. Instead, our society should embrace alternatives to university as equally valuable systems of education.

Universities and where they fit in the “new normal”

In his article, Terzuolo makes several key observations about the challenges that universities face under the ‘new normal’. 

The COVID-19 pandemic’s full impact on higher education isn’t easy to predict. But it’s certain to extend past short-term decisions about whether to hold in-person classes during the coming academic year. Many universities may well be forced to lower tuition rates, as students balk at paying full freight for classes conducted by Zoom.”

The author argues that universities must either rethink how they deliver value to students, or completely slash the tuition they charge for a degree program. As he puts it quite bluntly:

“University officials who imagine that they will be able to charge last year’s rates for an even partly virtual experience are existing in a state of “consensual hallucination.””

Universities will be hit hard by the ‘new normal’

The challenges that COVID-19 introduces into our traditional education model will be especially difficult for smaller, lower-ranking colleges and universities. As Terzuolo says:

“Big players, such as Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, will partner with the largest tech companies to create hybrid online-offline degrees, expanding enrollments drastically, taking in fully qualified students they currently do not have room for on their bricks-and-mortar campuses. According to this view, the top 50 universities globally are likely to be fine. But numbers 50 down to 1,000 will not… We should be open to the idea that the current system isn’t the only one that can produce value for students.”

Simply put, universities are growing too big, becoming too expensive, and creeping further out of reach of the people who so badly want a tertiary education:

“Rising tuition combined with flat middle-class incomes in the United States have conspired to create a situation that was unsustainable even before COVID-19 caused educators to begin having this difficult conversation.”

This is especially true in South Africa, where economically disadvantaged students yearn for powerful alternatives to university education.

The state of South African tertiary education 

If middle-ranked universities in the US are sure to be hit hard by lockdowns and economic decline, where does that leave South African universities, which exist in a space where income disparity, poverty, economic decline, and joblessness are even worse.

Looking at our economic landscape, it’s clear that universities are in for an extremely rough ride. Even before Coronavirus was a concern, South African youth were simply unable to afford a decent education. According to Statistics SA, more than half (or 51%) of youth aged 18–24 claimed that they did not have the financial means to pay for their tuition.

The financial impossibility of tertiary education is compounded by the fact that many people – young and old – just can’t find work. Approximately 8.2 million (40.1%) of South Africa’s 20.4 million young people aged 15 to 34 are not in employment, education or training of any sort, according to the latest figures released by Statistics SA in the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS), and the official unemployment rate increased (from its 11-year peak) by 1.0 percentage point to 30.1% in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the fourth quarter of 2019.

All of this financial precarity was a serious problem even before COVID-19 started wreaking havoc on our society.  However, with between 1.5 million and 3 million jobs losses predicted during the extended lockdown, analysts fear that a COVID-19 and lockdown ‘jobs bloodbath’ could obliterate the jobs market, and increase unemployment to as high as 50%. The economic background makes it clear that South Africans need affordable alternatives to university education.

The university model is overwhelmed and inflexible 

Even for those who can afford to get into university, one must seriously consider what value these universities are delivering under a national lockdown. Some degree programs simply can’t be completed outside a university setting (how many physics or chemistry experiments can you do at home?), but even the ‘softer’ subjects – for example, in the Humanities and Economics departments – beg the question of what value one can really derive from a four-year zoom meeting that costs up to half a million rand. 

Universities are already finding themselves battling to adapt to this ‘new normal’: already reports on the big names in South African tertiary education reveal the difficulties of organising, enabling, and delivering an online-only education. Where international bodies have to worry about their platforms being available online 24/7, and having decent teleconference lectures, South African universities have to cope with the additional pressure of having to provide data bundles, laptops, and other support services to students. Universities find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place: diminish their value offering to be affordable; or maintain their current model and services and remain out of reach of thousands of economically disadvantaged South Africans.

Ed-tech has said it for years: it’s time to recognise alternatives to university education

To keep delivering a valuable, useful education to people in the post-coronavirus world, students, government and all stakeholders need to think beyond the limited model of formal tertiary education, and embrace accessible and affordable alternatives to university.

Right now, there are powerful education models that are designed around the fact that few can afford the time and money sink of university. Online courses, MOOCs, and coding bootcamps like our own are ideally positioned to meet the new demands of a world in lockdown, while maximising the value that students can derive at a minimised cost. 

On their own, coding bootcamps boast several great benefits that keep them agile and able to deliver value to students:

Lean, outcome-focused education

Over the years, universities have slowly expanded to offer a whole range of ‘extra’ attractions outside of their core mandate of education. Yet while sport societies, extra-mural clubs, and assistance programs are nice to have, the pressures of lockdown and economic decline necessitate cutting back on luxuries to focus on the core deliverables: namely, a great education that prepares students for the jobs market. In a post-corona world, students need education models that are leaner and outcomes-focused, and more able to adapt to changing circumstances without sacrificing on its core value offerings. 

Minimised investment for maximised returns

Universities are widely and falsely perceived to be an automatic ticket to success. However, the more than 31% of all South African graduates who are currently unemployed know that a degree doesn’t guarantee much; and with the value of a bachelor’s degree in decline (how many jobs require a Master’s degree as a basic minimum in their advert?), students must seriously look for alternatives to university education that don’t force them to sacrifice 5 to 6 years of lost income and job experience just to be entry-level employable. With a coding bootcamp, students can graduate and enter the job market in an eighth of the time; what’s more, they’ll have better access to gaining practical experience through internships and projects that involve industry-relevant work.

Practical, job-ready skills focus

University education is theory-heavy and intensive by design. While this leads to a deep understanding of the core principles of a professional discipline, it also means that graduates have little space and time to develop on-the-job experience and skills. Smaller, skills-focused courses are far better positioned to build key job skills much more quickly – and without having to take extra subjects just to get enough credits to graduate. 

A specialised, smart education model, and not a one-size-fits-all approach

Becoming a doctor or a lawyer requires years of experience and deep learning – but can the same be said for every other job? Clearly not; yet the course requirements and structure of a degree in English literature are no less demanding than those for chemistry or quantum physics. Instead of fitting subjects into a pre-defined structure, the education structure itself should be refined and honed to exactly fit the subject in question and its skill outcomes. 

Edward Terzuolo says that COVID-19 will force universities to reinvent themselves. However, given the serious challenges that face students – in South Africa and across the world – we should not wait around for this to change to magically, hopefully happen. 

Instead, society should embrace the simple fact that there are newer, better, more efficient models of education out there. These alternatives are better positioned to deliver critical skills to students, all at a fraction of the cost and time of our colleges. 

Students can’t wait around for universities to adapt. They simply can’t afford to.

Do you want to join the tech industry, as a software engineer, web developer, or data scientist, but can’t afford expensive tuition or commit the years of study that traditional education institutions demand?

Our bootcamps focus on what you need to make this career path a reality: job-ready skills, taught by professionals, so that you can get working and earning in months, and not years.  Best of all, you’ll get full 1-on-1 mentorship and expert code review at every step of your coding journey, so that you consistently improve towards an industry standard of programming. 

Sign up now for a free trial at