The skills to be socially mobile

Pursuit of excellence, showcased in the WSJ/THE College Rankings, must run parallel with the mission of social mobility 

October 13, 2016
Man entering maze
Source: iStock

The inaugural Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education US College Rankings, which we publish in full this week, break new ground in our global analysis of higher education.

It’s the first time we’ve taken a comprehensive look at the performance of US universities (and we rank more than 1,000, with our partner – the largest newspaper by circulation in America). It’s also the first time we’ve focused our gaze in a way that explicitly considers the student, drawing on a survey we conducted of 100,000 current students.

The results encompass every type of institution: from the super-rich Ivy League to cash-strapped publics; liberal arts colleges (often overlooked in research-focused analyses) to Christian institutions which, we find, have some of the most engaged students in the land. The analysis and tables are to be found across 40 pages in this special edition of Times Higher Education.

As discussed in our coverage of the THE World Academic Summit last week, there are particular challenges facing the public universities in the US, which have suffered years of funding cuts, but which carry out much of the heavy lifting in terms of social mobility.

A further threat to this crucial role of universities lies in the disintegration of part-time and lifelong learning in the UK (part-time student numbers have fallen more than 50 per cent in recent years).

Those who would turn universities into business training centres should be careful what they wish for. But in the context of lifelong learning, a harder focus on skills might not only be appropriate but a lifeline, both for adult education and for those non-traditional and second-chance students who benefit from it.

The age of automation doesn’t mean we’ll all be out of work tomorrow, but how many of our jobs will still be the same the day after tomorrow? Careers are changing, and engaged members of society are discovering that the foundation for their lives is crumbling. This loss of identity and worth should be a grave concern for governments already caught unaware by a swing against the political status quo.

What’s often required to resolve this problem is skills-focused education. To borrow an example from LinkedIn’s co-founder Reid Hoffman, who spoke at the recent THE World Academic Summit, if we no longer need bank tellers, then why not re-equip them as experts in online banking security?

This is a way for both governments and universities to reassess the importance of lifelong learning, and back it with investment and a policy framework. They might also partner with data experts and technology companies to hone their approach.

In Manchester, LinkedIn is mapping local skills requirements and job trends to identify courses that will help local people find future employment. Universities will be able to use this to help tailor provision. Meanwhile, in our news pages this week, we report on the National University of Singapore’s work to develop a lifelong learning strategy on the basis of real-time skills-gap data.

None of this is to say that higher education is solely about delivering industry-specific training. Indeed, Hoffman himself studied philosophical logic before going off to Silicon Valley. But it does suggest a way back from the brink for lifelong learning, which remains a vital additional dimension not only to what universities do but to what they are.

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