When Sergey Brin and Larry Page set up Google in 1998, they got one thing very badly wrong: they focused their hiring strategy on brilliant computer scientists from the world’s top universities.
Mr Brin and Mr Page, who both have PhDs in computer science from Stanford University, were unequivocal in their view that only experts in the Stem subjects could deliver the pioneering solutions their innovative company required.
In 2013, Google launched Project Oxygen, an algorithmic analysis of employee performance. The results found that Stem knowledge was the least important requirement for a successful Google employee. The recruitment strategy needed a bold change: Google not only removed the requirement for Stem, but it eliminated entirely the requirement for degrees altogether. Today, Google seeks recruits with problem-solving skills, high levels of cognitive ability and alignment with the company's values.
Google’s story is not unique. They are joined by Apple, IBM, Starbucks and several other multinationals in no longer requiring recruits to have a degree. A recent survey in the US, by the employment website Indeed, found that six out of 10 companies are considering eliminating a degree from their hiring requirements.
How then did university degrees, the traditional benchmark of quality and rite of passage to a successful professional life, become only a secondary consideration for top-tier companies? One factor is that universities have remained stubbornly static while learner needs have evolved. Being able to understand Shakespeare; analysing the causes of the Cold War; and documenting the evolution of the universe are worthwhile endeavours but are graduates better prepared for the world as a result?
What employers such as Google and others have found is that knowledge of often narrow subjects, or unidimensional thinkers with specialist degrees, do not necessarily make the best employees. Google needs communicators, critical thinkers and problem solvers who can make multi-faceted decisions in a complex and fast-changing world.
If universities want to remain a major feeder for our workforce, they will need to change what they teach and how they operate.
What will benefit students is the development of so-called enduring skills: the ability to learn, an agility in thinking and curiosity for knowledge.
Instead of prioritising the teaching of facts, universities ought to help students develop habits. Degree programmes need to embed muscle memory in students’ brains and enable them to quickly integrate competing pieces of information and process complex data whatever the subject matter. This idea of encouraging generalists over specialists should not be provocative. This agility and adaptability is the very skillset that enabled Elon Musk to be a fintech entrepreneur one day, then the vanguard of private space exploration and electrical vehicles, the next.
The technological revolution, the explosion of data and the complexity of decision making mean that the challenges faced in the private sector are greater and faster moving than ever. This pace and complexity mean that often the disciplinary expertise students gain in their undergraduate programmes is soon obsolete or, at any rate, not enough. Learning how to code with Python today might seem important but it will almost certainly be usurped by a different programming language or even AI assistants in the not-too-distant future. “Hard” skills expire but enduring skills, by definition, endure.
For a thousand years, universities have been dominated by faculty who are rewarded for being disciplinary specialists, thinkers who value depth over breadth of learning.
What we need now is for specialists to think as generalists. The rise in interdisciplinary educational programmes – which focus on ways of thinking and teaching students the skills that enable them to learn how to learn – is therefore a welcome development. These programmes are already delivering better outcomes for students, and those who enrol in them now have the chance to be ahead of the curve. Interdisciplinary learning is the way we learn in the real world and will only become more commonplace.
When Google changed its hiring strategy it was already a $200 billion company, but Project Oxygen persuaded Mr Brin and Mr Page that their deeply held beliefs were wrong. They needed to adapt to thrive. In November last year, Google’s market cap topped $2 trillion for the first time.
The successful transformation of higher education to respond to its new reality is vital. We ask a lot of universities: being a training ground for the next generation of high-skilled workers is a heavy burden to carry. But their deeply held belief, gained over many centuries, that focusing on disciplines and niche knowledge is the way to deliver higher education, is outdated today. Just as Google faced a challenge, adapted and thrived, so must they.