Will handing curriculum design to industry solve the skills gap?

Cutting academics out of module creation poses risks, but it is a model that will be watched closely, says Chris Havergal

May 31, 2018
Robot assembly line

Wherever you are in the world, a constant complaint from industry is that universities are not producing graduates with the skills needed for today’s job market.

In the UK, for example, the latest skills survey conducted by the business lobby group CBI and Pearson found that one in four businesses had had to provide graduate recruits with remedial training in basic skills, and that a third had expressed concerns about university leavers’ attitudes and resilience.

In the developing world, these concerns are often even more pronounced. A recent survey conducted in India found that only a third of employers and industry representatives believed that graduates possessed the skills that they wanted.

How, then, can this problem be solved? The approach adopted by South Korea’s Incheon National Universityhanding control of curricula to industry and reducing lecturers to tutors tasked with delivering pre-prepared content – is at one end of the scale, but it could become more widely adopted as countries push forward in the global skills race.

Such an approach would appear to pose significant problems for scholars. Not only does it shrink their influence in an area in which they have developed significant expertise, but it also raises questions about whether teaching can be informed by the research being conducted by academics, seen as a key driver of student engagement and the development of critical thinking.

Involving industry in curriculum design could result in a short-term approach to course content, with students being pushed towards practical skills in areas such as coding where knowledge can rapidly become outdated, when all the signs are that what graduates need in a workplace being transformed by technology are adaptable, generic skills such as communication and problem-solving.

Likewise, the prospects for the arts, humanities and social sciences might look even bleaker when economic growth is increasingly driven by companies linked to science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

More fundamentally, industry involvement in curriculum design raises the question of whether universities are needed at all, or whether companies could deliver the training themselves through online platforms.

However, Incheon’s experience shows that some of these fears may be overstated. The university’s approach is motivated by the desire not only to teach students how to utilise technologies such as artificial intelligence, but also to cultivate in them the capabilities that AI cannot intrude upon, such as creativity.

Students take half their credits from traditional majors, with the other half being designed by employers. And when you consider the modules created by employers, often they are keenest on the sorts of skills traditionally associated with the arts and humanities: logic, critical thinking, self-expression, creative thinking and the like. Only some are more tightly focused, for example, courses on “industrial and management engineering” and “accounting principles and taxation” on a degree designed by livestock feed producer AgRich Global.

Ultimately, it is probably too early to tell how Incheon’s experiment will turn out: the litmus test will be the performance of students who complete these courses when they enter the job market.

But with concerns about graduate skills unlikely to abate any time soon, it is undoubtedly an approach that will be watched closely.

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Will business-built programmes mean end to skills gap?

Reader's comments (2)

The key to curriculum design is knowing what you want students to be able to do at the end of the course. US Army training, at least when I took part in it decades ago, succeeded because the skill goals were clear. Basic training turned novices into accurate marksmen in eight weeks. Army photojournalism training turned out news photographers in five days. The thorniest ed problem these days, bad writing instruction, is, I think, caused by the absence of clear skill goals. One solution is a curriculum design called Readable Writing. (readablewriting.com)
Any University that purports to train their students, and therefore equip them with those skills which 'Industry' wants, is being disingenuous towards them. Training is not their role; that is better left to those individual industrial and commercial organisations which seek particular and demonstrable outcomes for their employees. Skill development within any educational system is likely to fail because skills are not well understood by those entrusted with it. Indeed most that dabble in skill development stumble over providing a clear definition of what an actual skill is. If 'Industry' (whatever that is) wants to annex a University for their particular needs, then they should be charged the true cost of being able to do so. Charging the full economic cost might well result in would be curriculum designers losing interest in such a ridiculous hijacking of a University's assets.

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