Catering to Gen Z’s needs: creating a flexible and adaptable education programme

Universities need to teach broad knowledge and skills that will help graduates adapt in a fast-changing future workplace. Three academics share insights from developing a generalist approach to training business students

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The Hang Seng University of Hong Kong
25 Mar 2022
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Advice on developing higher education programmes that meet the skills needs of Gen Z students

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With more than half of Gen Z students expecting to do a job that does not yet exist, how can universities design education programmes that prepare students to thrive in an era of constant change?

Anyone born after 1997 is part of “Gen Z”, which makes up the majority of university students today.  Gen Z students face a dynamic employment landscape in which many traditional jobs are in decline while some of the most in-demand roles did not exist 10 years ago, according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2018A study of 17- to 25-year-olds in the United States in 2019 revealed that 54.3 per cent of Gen Zers expected to do a job that did not yet exist, and one-third of them did not know what type of career they would choose. The pandemic has only added to the pace of change and uncertainty.

It is important that higher education programme leaders understand the changing needs of students and employers. In Hong Kong, the birth rate has declined for the seventh consecutive year. This, coupled with the proliferation of undergraduate degrees, has made competition for students very fierce among Hong Kong universities. The number of secondary school graduates fell by 37.5 per cent while the number of undergraduate places increased by 17.2 per cent between 2013 and 2020.

Today’s university students want more flexibility in their programme of study, and they expect career change to be inevitable.

Developing a generalist programme

Guided by design thinking, the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong has created a general business programme that caters to these Gen Z needs. The following is a brief outline of how we approached the programme development process, with useful lessons for others embarking on this journey.

1. Discover: Take the time to research your target learners and their interests and needs. Our programme development team started by conducting a survey of 300 secondary school students to understand their thought process in choosing an undergraduate programme. It revealed that 47 per cent of them were interested in a business degree but 71 per cent could not decide between several popular programmes, namely accounting, economics/finance, management, and marketing. Notably, 73 per cent of them agreed they wanted a programme that “equips them with well-rounded skills and knowledge in different business functions”.

2. Define: Distill the findings from your initial research by gathering more detailed information and inviting input from other stakeholders and experts. To gain clearer and deeper insights, in-depth interviews were conducted with students, administrators, employers and other stakeholders. Several keywords emerged from an in-depth analysis of the interview data, including flexibility, adaptability, transferability, mentorship and self-learning.

3. Develop: Design a programme that aligns with student wishes and results in broad and diverse learning outcomes and transferrable skills relevant to the future workplace. On the basis of survey and interview findings, a flexible programme was developed that gives students the freedom to choose from a broad spectrum of business courses spanning five disciplines: accounting, finance, management, marketing, and supply chain management. An optional minor in European languages – French, German, and Spanish – was made available for globally minded students. Under the guidance of an academic adviser, students can create a unique study path that fits their interests, strengths, and potential career aspirations.

4. Deliver: A collaborative approach is necessary to build a programme that spans multiple specialisms. Ensure there is representation from all the relevant disciplines and departments and that everyone is consulted throughout the process. We formed a programme development committee, with members drawn from the marketing, finance, social science, and English departments, which oversaw the step-by-step development of the general business programme. The curriculum and learning outcomes were thoroughly discussed with key stakeholders before going through the approval bodies. This rigorous process ensured the integrity and quality of the multidisciplinary programme.

Observing the generalist advantage

Launched in May 2020, the new programme drew more than 400 applications within two months. The following year, student intake went up by 16 per cent. The success of this new programme shows the value of taking a generalist approach to develop diverse knowledge and expertise for the 21st century. Having a broad skill set is an advantage in today’s innovation-driven economy, with many business leaders, notably Steve Jobs, pointing out that the best ideas come from combining insights from different fields that do not seem to be connected.

Eric Chee is principal lecturer and programme director, Roy Ying is senior lecturer, and Winnie Chan is lecturer and associate director, all in the marketing department at Hang Seng University of Hong Kong.

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5 Things to know about the future of jobs” by Vesselina Stefanova Ratcheav for the World Economic Forum

Gen Z Career Guide: The Best Jobs for the Future” by Reece Johnson in Best Colleges

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