The place of professional certificates and the significance of an academic degree

My Twitter feed is alight with comments on Google’s six-month “career” certificate, which, according to this SVP, Google will treat as equivalent to a four-year Bachelor’s degree. Predictably, a large number of comments are from students who conclude from their own disappointed experience that all college programs are crap. They cheer on Google. Also predictably, I didn’t see a single academic professional join and comment in the discussion.

Mostly, I think, these two stakeholders (students and professors) are talking past each other. Students argue that university does not teach them much of use in the workplace that they couldn’t pick up faster through one of the myriad of online courses. Professors typically argue that those practical learnings students are asking for won’t help them much in the long term, which is why they teach fundamental concepts rather than the tech du jour.

In my book, both stakeholders are right. Students should ask that examples and exercises be aligned with today’s technology, not yesterday’s. And professors have a right to insist on teaching fundamentals that stay with students long-term. This does not free students from having to learn and relearn current technologies during the course of their career, but the university education should have provided the foundation of that. Professional certificates are a good enhancements of foundations that have been put in place by an academic program.

This then points to another confusion often ignored in these debates: The context of getting a college degree is usually one in which students are young adults, taking their first steps outside their parents’ home. It is an important time for personal growth beyond the technical content of a degree. The diversity and energy of an in-presence university is an important place for this and much better suited than a single short or even a series of online certificates.

Which leads to me to my final point: The Anglo-saxon system and the commercialization of higher education is dominant in the public English-language debate. Too many Universities are out to make a buck, and less to educate. Many students, who want to study in the U.S. (and the UK, and Australia, and …) only get the option to join a subpar university at high financial costs. No wonder, they are outraged. The alternative is to go to a European country (like Germany) where high quality university education is free.

That’s how it is. Or at least was, as all of this is changing. Thanks to Corona, students are being robbed of the in-presence experience and have to make do with alternatives, which will only speed up the changes. I recommend Scott Galloway’s article on this topic (and his related writing). I set out to write one of my own but ended up with this piece. I hope I’ll get to what I expect to be an unbundling and rebundling of academic degrees soon.



  1. Sascha A. Carlin Avatar

    Spot on. There is good reason why a proper study program takes more than six months. Teaching the fundamental principles take time, as does learning how they connect to each other.

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