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CHANGES IN THE CERTIFICATION OF KNOWLEDGE. Decline or renewal of higher education? Threats and possibilities amidst a global epidemic situation Horizon Scanning Report Series VOLUME 3



This report is the third part of a Horizon Scanning series by the Future of Higher Education Research Centre at Budapest Business School. It addresses the changes and drivers related to the certification of knowledge, or more precisely, the kind of knowledge higher education provides and/or the labour market needs and the various forms in which it can be certified.
Decline or renewal of higher education?
Threats and possibilities amidst a global epidemic situation
Horizon Scanning Report Series
Future of Higher
Budapest Business School
Budapest, 2020
This report is the third part of a series by the Future of Higher Education Research Centre at Budapest
Business School. It aims to find answers to the question ‘What trends can be identified affecting the future
of higher education (HE) based on academic and semi-academic discourses?’. The abrupt change in higher
education (just as in any other spheres of life) due to the COVID-19 global pandemic made this exercise
more urgent and topical. Therefore, we decided to publish our initial findings to help orient different
stakeholders in HE.
Details about the series and the Centre:
This report addresses the changes and drivers related to the certification of knowledge, or more precisely,
the kind of knowledge higher education provides and/or the labour market needs and the various forms in
which it can be certified. First, a 'present state' is set out, then the discussion moves on to describing
several possible future trends concerning the certifications provided by higher education – touching on
their perceived value, the type and amount of effort required to earn them, the technical details of
awarding them, as well as the types of institutions issuing them.
Currently there seems to be a growing dissatisfaction concerning the credentials issued by higher
education, both on the part of students and employers.
Students are embittered as a result of the rise of education fees (which is a worldwide phenomenon), and the
weakening of the belief that university degrees can ensure one’s future employability. These high fees are
supposed to signal the “quality” of the higher education institution (HEI) and are caused by the
commercialisation and the decreasing government funding of mass higher education. They are also one of the
reasons students expect university degrees to automatically make the hunt for jobs easier.
However, the increasing prevalence of on-the-job
trainings and ascending employer acceptance level of
online courses (e.g. MOOCs) also indicate that in some
cases higher education does not prepare students for
success in the labour market, nor are credentials
ultimate passports to employment.
Speaking of employers, their dissatisfaction with
higher education credentials is rooted in the
expectation that graduates should be prepared for the
job they are applying for and are accepted to. In fact,
the widespread practice of on-the-job trainings proves
that employers are not satisfied with the level or
direction of the knowledge and/or skills of graduates.
Alternative providers
The first important consequence of the situation described above is the emergence of alternative
education providers. These can be entirely private companies, or private corporations joining the
education programmes of HEIs. In both cases, the education and thus the credentials are more focused on
the needs of the labour market. Such providers (like Udemy, Khan Academy or Coursera) often deliver
digitalised learning programmes, blended learning and massive online courses.
The question whether every profession can be taught and learnt through digitalised learning programmes
is still open, although MOOCs are already covering several fields. Alternative providers as such have
several advantages for both students and their future employers. Free from governmental regulation, they
are free to change their curricula to reflect the most up-to-date knowledge in the field of interest. They can
also be more flexible when it comes to learning hours: in an online format this is self-evident but can also
be the case even when personal presence is required (e.g. weekend classes or all-week 'intensive' courses
are possible).
In corporate and HEI partnerships, companies get to have a voice in shaping the curricula, which can affect
positively both the company and the HEI. The former benefits from well-prepared future employees, while
for the latter it can result in a higher number of economically successful graduates, an inviting aspect for
future applicants. Credentials given out by alternative providers or programmes can be just as valuable or
even more valuable than traditional certificates to employers and employees. Students, viewed as future
employees, are interested in finding jobs in a short period of time and in acquiring applicable corporate
skills. Supposing that alternative providers are relatively cheaper than university programmes, paying low
education fees could be another advantage for them. Employers of the future increasingly prefer proven
skills to so-called “theoretical knowledge” (whatever that may be), and a labour force that needs minimal
on-the-job training is favoured.
Such trainings are expensive and also pose a risk to the employer – employees are not producing value while being
trained but may leave the company after their training. Hence, the corporate desire to play a role in shaping
university curricula is strong. Such interventions can cause the loss of university autonomy in the field of
credentials, since universities could no longer define their requirements freely.
“Skills over degrees” as an employer position devalues university certificates as it rewards alternative credentials
(e.g. MOOC certificates) just as much as degrees. Although some may welcome this trend on the basis that it helps
equalise opportunities between those who can afford to pursue university studies and those who have to contend
with alternative sources of education, it has to be noted that alternative courses can be expensive, too, while
traditional university degrees might still have a somewhat important signalling function.
The issues described above are central drivers of the possible changes discussed below, but are not the only
ones. The increasing speed of technological innovation and the constant economic need for swift
adaptation to changes point in the same direction.
When alternative education providers, hence alternative credentials, are proven to successfully fulfil these
needs, they are and will be as important and acknowledged as traditional university degrees. With the
rising acceptance of credentials earned at alternative providers, the value of traditional credentials may
decrease. If such providers can prepare and certify competent employees, traditional HE programmes will
be considered outdated and needlessly expensive. Alternative education providers and their credentials
could be not just strong competitors of future HEIs and their credentials, but also winners of such a
competition. In the case of joint education programmes, the autonomy of defining the curricula,
credentials and requirements is no longer at the sole discretion of universities, but is shared with
Critical note:
The view that the main goal of higher education (and universities in particular) is to prepare students for
the labour market is not uncontested. In fact, some argue that even the prevalence of on-the-job trainings
is not a sign of HE's inadequacy. Rather, it shows that firms have their specific operational practices,
standards, perhaps even industrial secrets that they do not want to give away. On the other hand, some
research shows that employers actually seek 'well-rounded' candidates for jobs, not simply cogs for their
This highlights the fact that universities have just as important a role in preparing students for life, to be
functioning, satisfied and successful members of society and their community. It, however, does not
automatically include the ability to please employers (see their role in socialisation in Volume 2 of this
report series). Alternative providers are not likely to fulfil these functions of the traditional university
Lastly, conducting one's education only to please the labour market might turn out to be a new source of
dissatisfaction. Traditional university education has the advantage of providing many transferable skills:
even if the student comes to regret their first choice, what they learned is rarely wasted and can often be
applied in a different future career. This might not be so in the case of an education tailored to the explicit
needs of a certain employer.
Alternative and micro-credentials
As well as 'alternative providers' emerging in the education market, new forms of credentials may be
established and spread wide. Out of such alternatives, micro-credentials might hold the biggest
The term refers to credentials that are not the outcomes of long programmes provided by universities (e.g.
bachelor- or master-level degrees), but certificates that are given to students after successfully completing
shorter and more compact education, or are given as milestones after completing a part of a longer
education programme. Micro-credentials can be useful for students and employers too. Students engaging
in forms of education that provide micro-credentials can concentrate on acquiring skills and knowledge in
the very specific fields they choose, and only in those. Covering only an explicitly narrow field, the duration
of the programme is shorter, thus the students can start using the acquired skill as soon as possible. The
shorter duration also makes the curriculum easier to adapt to the latest trends in the given field. From the
employers’ point of view, a prepared workforce that knows and uses the latest developments of their own
field is the outcome of that form of education. Thus, micro-credentials are the education industry’s answer
to employer dissatisfaction with graduates’ unpreparedness, and to student dissatisfaction with rising
education fees. Furthermore, they also offer opportunities to deepen one’s knowledge in a specific field, in a
specific direction, thus they are good indicators of further education and training, possibly after graduation.
Programmes that provide micro-credentials can change traditional higher education in various ways. They
might replace classic university education in several fields. For example, in the IT sector, where it is often
the case that familiarity with one particular trend or technology is sufficient for both the employee and the
employer in order to work effectively. The replacement of classic higher education programmes goes hand
in hand with the replacement of credentials: micro-credentials will be just as valuable – if not more
valuable – as university degrees. They can also alter the classic HE structure, which now commonly gives
one certificate after completing a longer education programme. With the rise of micro-credentials, HEIs
could change their certification strategy and give out micro-credentials after completing a certain group of
classes or taking special exams. This way, classic higher education certificates would be compiled of
micro-credentials that are valuable on their own as well.
Naturally, a reorientation towards micro-courses and -credentials would bring about a number of
organisational changes within universities. Student numbers might multiply even further, putting more
stress on administrative systems. The student population would likely diversify (in terms of age, of social
and professional backgrounds), but its turnaround time would be quicker – possibly undermining a sense
of community and shared identity. Teachers, too, would be forced to monitor their professional fields
constantly, to be able to keep track of every new development. In fact, such an education might require
more 'practicing professionals' as instructors than 'lecturers' (let alone researchers).
Critical note:
The spread of micro-credentials could have a negative effect as well. If most students are trained to
become professionals in a very narrow part of their own field, they will miss the general courses that
universities currently provide for them in the longer education process. Hence, they would lack the ability
to see and understand the wider (social, economic, scientific) context in which their own field is situated,
as well as the interrelations within it. Such a complex view and other, more general courses provided by
universities (social studies and humanities for example) can radically shape one’s worldview and even
affect their relationship to the workplace, colleagues, and moral choices at their job.
Furthermore, the endurance of 'micro-doses' of knowledge can also be called into question. Expertise in
specific methods and technologies can be very beneficial in the short term, but it might also become
obsolete quickly, while the theoretical underpinnings of certain fields change only slowly. In that regard,
universities still seem to be well positioned to provide students with enduring knowledge and skills: a safe
foundation, on which further studies can be built.
Possible technological changes pertaining to the certification of knowledge
The way certificates are awarded is just as likely to be changed by developments in information and
communication technology (ICT) as every other area of life. Notably, the emergence of alternative
providers and new types of certificates will be conducive to such technological changes, and vice versa. In
a (possible future) world where both instruction and assessment are happening in some online space, an
'automated' issuing of degrees becomes possible. Once a student completes the requisite tasks, a
certificate can instantly be awarded to them by a 'smart contract' system. To ensure authenticity, such
'e-degrees' can also be registered in a blockchain, and then carried on one's smartphone in a dedicated app.
Generally, those envisioning this development do not say much about the role of teachers in the process.
At first glance, it might seem that 'the technology' will take care of it all. However, it has to be obvious that
some human intervention will still be needed. Lecturers might have to become designers of effective
online courses or supervisors responsible for the smooth operation of the system or, in what might be
considered a more fortunate outcome, they could remain an integral part of the educational process,
bringing their personality into knowledge transfer, providing personalised instruction and tutoring.
Even though such a development might change little in the content of certifications (what kind of knowledge or
effort they are awarded for), this new form looks best adapted to the practices of online education providers,
who have already invested into similar technologies. Therefore, this might be one area where traditional
universities will face competition. Otherwise, the security risks associated with the reliance on ICT will mean
additional costs to every education provider.
Critical note:
Blockchain as a technology is said to contain huge potential. However, outside the world of cryptocurrencies, we
are yet to see it engendering any revolutionary change (for the better anyway). As far as e-security concerns go:
a system which is safeguarded against counterfeit e-diplomas is perhaps not hard to imagine. However, little is
said about the issue of identifying students, or to put it more bluntly, cheating. Currently, nothing prevents
people from completing an online course in someone else's name. (Exams during the time of the pandemic bring
this issue into sharp relief.) In the same way that virtual characters and fortunes are built up by semi-professional
players in massive online games (such as World of Warcraft) and are then sold for 'real' money, we can imagine a
future in which online education courses are completed on an industrial scale by 'surrogate' students, while the
certificates are pocketed by time-constrained but financially well-off individuals. Eventually, of course, they
would have to face a true test in the labour market but if we have to rely on that anyway, it seems pointless to
build up and operate a whole industry of e-certificates of dubious quality.
Furthermore, it can be observed that the form of online education that might precede the issuing of such
e-degrees is currently geared towards a highly individualised (perhaps somewhat atomised) learning experience.
While students and providers might both find that comfortable, the technology could equally allow for
cooperative ways of learning and mentoring.
Global standards
If new providers and new types of credentials get established in the higher education market (see above),
that carries the risk of chaos in the field of knowledge certification. The question 'Who certifies the
certificates?' will logically be asked. Legitimacy might be provided by the market, by some national
authority and, last but not least, international standards might get established. This would be all the more
logical because alternative education providers already often operate internationally, offering courses to
a worldwide audience. If the appropriate independent 'watchdog' emerges, a global standard to which
higher education degrees (or perhaps more likely: their providers) are held will follow.
Critical note:
Given that alternative providers and certificates of education would be called into life by the needs of the
market, a non-market mechanism of validation seems contradictory. Having to certify educational
programmes with a global watchdog would hurt the ability of alternative providers to react to
technological and labour market trends in a swift, up-to-date manner. Moreover, the
measurement/validation/ranking of higher education is already a crowded field, a new entrant would only
lead to more congestion, confusion, and struggles for legitimacy. Finally, it has to be noted that a
custodian of global standards for the aforementioned 'new' types of education would not necessarily
prioritise the interests of traditional universities – it might favour alternative providers.
Critical note:
As with every branding exercise, striking the right balance between the „talk” talked and the „walk” walked
would be delicate for universities. Small players would be exposed to constant pressures to 'overpromise'
while they might not have enough resources to improve their hard product. Ensuring the balance would
not be any less tricky in an 'umbrella' setup either, where small universities would have to become parts of
a bigger franchise. Furthermore, an emphasis on branding brings to the fore a managerial approach to
strategic planning in higher education – something that is often met with resistance on the part of the
academic community.
One possible development in the wake of the aforementioned 'credibility crisis' might be that brands
become increasingly important in higher education, especially with regards to the certificates they issue.
Naturally, brands already exist in the realm of higher education – 'Harvard', 'MIT', 'Oxford' evoke
connotations of high quality and excellence. In the future, other players might strive to build up a similarly
precious reputation. This will likely give rise to a number of organisational trends – all of which will be felt
strongest by small universities.
First, private ('market') providers of education might enjoy a certain advantage in the area of
brand-building over smaller universities. Partly, this will be due to the fact that as for-profit organisations,
these players had to invest both money and expertise in marketing from their very beginnings. Otherwise,
it might be a consequence of the fact that private providers have 'numbers' on their side – they often
operate internationally, catering to a huge student population and that they are in the field of
technologically fashionable online education. To put it shortly: 'big' and 'tech' might make them look 'cool'.
Therefore, in order to build or strengthen their brands, universities
will have to invest (more) consciously into marketing efforts (either
by creating the corresponding positions or by hiring external help).
Such a brand-building task, however, will be a costly exercise, and in
order to cope, universities might have to form 'conglomerates'. That,
in turn, can play out in two different ways. The first is that universities
gather under a parent organisation, mainly to help manage costs but
keep their individual identities if these identities offer 'brand value' in
themselves. The other is that currently prestigious universities
become the parent organisations themselves, integrating smaller,
less significant players under their 'umbrella'. In this latter scenario,
the diploma, issued by the formerly independent, small university is
'certified' by the parent. Naturally, such a formation carries the risk of
diluting the prestigious brand, therefore, it will only come to life if
proper guarantees of quality are put in place.
A future in which 'anything goes'
Historically, universities are strongly associated with scientific research, and therefore the knowledge they
transfer to students is considered serious and valuable. Obviously, this is also reflected in the symbolic value
of a university degree.
Private online education providers offer a wide range of courses, many of which correspond to university
programmes (such as 'business administration' or 'psychology'). This obviously enhances their credibility.
However, the same providers also offer a number of other courses which might be called scientifically
questionable – e.g. on Tarot card reading (to „master your psychic ability”) or on becoming a 'crystal reiki
master'. This fact might give rise to a number of trends in the future.
First, if the 'serious' courses provided by private educators receive labour market validation (i.e. employers
accept them as equal to a university qualification), then the same validity might be projected on to their
'unserious' courses, too. This, in an extreme case, could eventually bring a medical university degree to the
same level as that of a crystal reiki practitioner. In an age where there are signs that scepticism towards
science is increasing, this would certainly be an unwelcome development from the viewpoint of traditional
higher education institutions.
Another possible consequence is that in order to stay competitive, universities themselves would have to
offer 'unserious' courses – whereby the devaluation of degrees would eventually also happen. On the other
hand, if private online providers continue to offer 'bogus' courses, their reputation might be tarnished, while
university degrees may retain (or even strengthen) theirs.
What kind of future will be brought about by the drivers and trends discussed above? Obviously, the question
is rhetorical and only serves the purpose of introducing a number of 'visions' one can imagine. The discussion
now turns to these.
A future in which
'anything goes'
The university
withering away
Reports of my
death are greatly
The university withering away
One possible consequence of the aforementioned trends surrounding higher education – i.e. dissatisfaction
with the content and quality, and the importance of in-work experience in the labour market – can
conceivably lead to the outcome of university degrees losing their importance in general. Research showing
that educational performance and job performance do not strongly correlate already exists, and some big
companies have already started a practice of hiring without degree. If a degree is no longer required for a
large enough number of well-paying jobs, its utility is largely relegated to the symbolic sphere. University
diplomas will either be replaced by other kinds of credentials or simply by one's CV: where and what tasks
one worked on.
Naturally, the risk of such an outcome will vary by profession. For example, the fields of information
technology and business, where knowledge considered timely changes rapidly, are already going in this
direction and possibly will continue to do so while others might not follow them at all, for instance, medicine
or law (due also in part to their guildlike qualities) or any kind of job that needs 'scientists' in the narrow
sense of the word. Carrying this last point further: universities might continue their existence as centres of
research even if they do lose their education function.
Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated
'The more things change, the more they stay the same', goes the popular adage. We should be careful not to
get carried away by the myriad possibilities of micro-credentials, on-the-job training, MOOCs, blockchain
and virtual reality solutions, all promising sweeping changes in the field of higher education. It can be
argued, after all, that universities have survived and perhaps even came out stronger from any number of
industrial revolutions people have talked about so far.
The fact that people need knowledge and/or skills in order to succeed in the labour market is not about to
change. We should not forget that on-the-job training is costly for any employer, and even if these costs are
counterbalanced by benefits, the former are often more easily quantified than the latter. In times of
economic downturn, in-house training will be among the first items to save money on. Therefore, it is safe to
assume that the labour market will continue to rely on higher education for educating, training, and
certifying people for 'general employability'.
There is also an argument to be made for the 'symbolic resilience' of university diplomas. Partly depending
on successful branding exercises, they will continue to be more meaningful and prestigious than certificates
earned from massive online courses. Globally, as middle-class levels of consumption and aspirations become
attainable for millions of people, it is safe to expect that families will strive to see their children earn that
university degree. While in the short term the economic consequences of the pandemic might arrest this
trend, it still looks likely in the long term.
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Published by: Budapest Business School, Budapest, Hungary
May 2020
Scanning Report Series, Volume III. Future of Higher Education Research Centre, Budapest Business School,
This report was prepared as part of the project ‘The future of business education’ funded by National Research,
Development and Innovation Office, Hungary (FK127972).
Future of Higher
Budapest Business School
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
New technologies and the knowledge economy are destabilising graduate professions, with artificial intelligence and the analysis of ‘big data’ making significant impacts on formerly-secure jobs. Blockchain technology, offering automated secure credentialling of undergraduate students’ activities and achievements, may significantly erode existing systems of assessment. The challenge for universities will be not only to maintain the relevance of their curricula but also to manage erosion of their current near-monopoly in awarding degrees. This paper envisions a landscape in which universities must outsource parts of their course delivery and assessment in order to remain competitive. It examines a potentially sustainable mission strategy: to move away from narrow academic disciplines towards an authentic learning curriculum focusing on the development of students as whole persons with rounded educations. This paper examines implications for the academy of the convergence of artificial intelligence, data analytics and blockchain technology.
Full-text available
China’s success at modernizing over the last 30 years has followed a consistent pattern comprising investigation of best-in-class models from other countries, experimentation in China, and then mass adoption through government edict or market demand. In this chapter, May and Yuan describe the state of current higher educational reform efforts in support of innovation; explore the obstacles facing far reaching reform, offer a view about the likelihood of success and the potential emergence of a ‘Chinese model’ for innovation; and identify some lessons other countries might draw from China’s experience. May and Yuan use their own experience, introducing and teaching ‘Design Thinking’ to STEM students at a Chinese university as a case study to explore how best to develop critical thinking skills in the automation context.
One of the main missions of higher education is to prepare the young (but not exclusively them) for future challenges. It not only has the potential to change individual lives but it can also make the social fabric more resilient and adaptive. However, presently this future is highly uncertain and fraught with risks. This radical uncertainty makes it difficult to identify future-proof knowledge, skills and capacities. Moreover, it also raises questions about the possible roles higher education should play in future societies. We argue that higher education should be an active agent in shaping future society. In order to fulfil its potential as such, this type of agency-orientation should transcend its core activities, like research and teaching, currently built into its institutional settings. This special issue highlights certain possible directions for change as far as HEIs are concerned. These future possibilities are in relation to learning, ethics, fairness, community involvement and the role of research at institutions which were formerly teaching-oriented. These can be seen as first steps towards understanding what organisational changes are needed for HEIs to maintain their social relevance and to actively shape their environment.
This book is open access under a CC BY 4.0 license. This collection examines how higher education responds to the demands of the automation economy and the fourth industrial revolution. Considering significant trends in how people are learning, coupled with the ways in which different higher education institutions and education stakeholders are implementing adaptations, it looks at new programs and technological advances that are changing how and why we teach and learn. The book addresses trends in liberal arts integration of STEM innovations, the changing role of libraries in the digital age, global trends in youth mobility, and the development of lifelong learning programs. This is coupled with case study assessments of the various ways China, Singapore, South Africa and Costa Rica are preparing their populations for significant shifts in labour market demands – shifts that are already underway. Offering examples of new frameworks in which collaboration between government, industry, and higher education institutions can prevent lagging behind in this fast changing environment, this book is a key read for anyone wanting to understand how the world should respond to the radical technological shifts underway on the frontline of higher education.
EDUCAUSE Horizon Report: 2019 Higher Education Edition
  • B Alexander
  • K Ashford-Rowe
  • N Barajas-Murphy
  • G Dobbin
  • J Knott
  • M Mccormack
  • J Pomerantz
  • R Seilhamer
  • N Weber
Alexander, B., Ashford-Rowe, K., Barajas-Murphy, N., Dobbin, G., Knott, J., McCormack, M., Pomerantz, J., Seilhamer, R., & Weber, N. (2019). EDUCAUSE Horizon Report: 2019 Higher Education Edition. Louisville, CO: EDUCAUSE, 2019.
1. What is education for? Good education in an age of measurement: ethics, politics, democracy
  • G Biesta
Biesta, G. (2010). 1. What is education for? Good education in an age of measurement: ethics, politics, democracy (pp. 11-27). Boulder, C: Paradigm Publishers. -socialization-subjectification/