New world of work: are universities preparing students for future careers?

How can higher education prepare students for jobs that do not even exist yet? asks Christina Slade

July 27, 2017
Technology in higher education
Source: iStock

The world of work is changing: 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will be employed in jobs that do not yet exist, according to the World Economic Forum in its 2016 report The Future of Jobs.

Some years earlier, in an interview with the BBC World Service, Andrew Hugill, professor of creative computing at Bath Spa University, made a similar point, listing 10 top jobs that were not currently in existence. Several of the jobs he named – data ecologist, gamification consultant, virtual environment engineer – have since been advertised.

Should universities be preparing students for a new world of work?

The Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data, released in June this year, correlated areas of study with incomes at one year, three years and five years after graduation. Higher incomes are associated with traditional subjects such as medicine and dentistry, engineering and technology, law and banking. Universities take pride and market their wares on the basis of the high salaries of their graduates and, while focusing on traditional careers bolsters performance on LEO, is there a danger of looking backwards when talking of employment? Should universities be focusing on producing graduates for traditional jobs?

In a 2012 report entitled Enterprising Futures, Len Schlesinger of the Harvard Business School describes a world of work where professions, banks, finance and large corporations no longer dominate. Much of the work graduates used to do is being digitised away – that is true even in medicine and engineering, and certainly in banking and the law. Roles for which university had been a preparation are thinning out, and few are able to rely on having a “job for life” in a secure profession or corporation. The new workers need to be flexible, work on demand, and bring skills to bear as and when they are required. Portfolio careers will no longer be the exception. Digital skills and entrepreneurial nous will be necessary for success.

The huge growth in the creative sector since 2011 confirms Schlesinger’s predictions: according to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the sector increased by 19.5 per cent between 2011 and 2015, with a 19.2 per cent increase in jobs in creative occupations over that same period. According to the DCMS, the UK’s creative industries were worth a record £87.4 billion to the UK economy in 2015.

This is a good story. What is more, the 2016 data showed that 59.9 per cent of jobs in the creative industries were filled by graduates, compared with 37.2 per cent of all jobs in the UK. Universities whose focus is on traditional career paths should be taking note.

How can we support our students for the new world of work? What can we do to ensure that they are entrepreneurial, successful and fulfilled?

At Bath Spa University we pride ourselves on being the university of creativity, culture and enterprise. We aim to support students with the skills they will need for this new world of work. But this does not mean that we have a list of creative professions – advertising, for example – for which we train our students. It is a more complex set of graduate attributes we hope to engender: critical and creative thinking skills, global awareness, digital literacy.

A graduate joining a start-up on Silicon Roundabout or running a music portfolio needs to be resilient, adaptable and able to work in teams as they form and reform. They need to have local and international networks. They need to be entrepreneurial in the best sense – aware of the world and what is happening.

We hope our graduates will be successful and fulfilled. But success may not always translate into high incomes as measured by LEO.

In 2007, an Australian study of graduates 20 years after university showed that arts graduates outperformed many in technical sectors. Here at Bath Spa, Naomi Alderman, professor of creative writing and digital media, was the recipient of this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for her astounding novel The Power. Alderman has also developed Zombie Run!, a highly successful app for joggers, demonstrating that narrative brilliance works across genres.

Education is not just about income. It is about fulfilment and enrichment. We may not be able to predict the jobs of the future, but we can help to ensure that students find fulfilment in the jobs they choose to do.

Christina Slade is retiring as vice-chancellor of Bath Spa University after almost six years in the role. 

This article was commissioned by THE in partnership with PA Consulting Group as part of a series on Living with uncertainty: how universities can thrive in a volatile world. PA Consulting provides business advice to UK universities.

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