CourseraWhy human skills are key to student employability

Why human skills are key to student employability

Employers are placing a premium on human skills such as leadership and communication, and universities must find innovative ways of embedding them in curricula to prepare students for employment

The 21st-century workplace demands an ever-changing set of skills, and this has profound implications for universities. The speed of technological change is accelerating, shortening the shelf life of technical skills. 

Soft skills will forever be in demand, and higher education can enhance student employability through innovative curriculum design and modes of learning that help students develop the interpersonal skills required of them in employment.

Speaking at a webinar hosted by Times Higher Education in partnership with online learning platform Coursera for Campus, Suseela Balakrishnan, former deputy-vice-chancellor (student journey) at Muscat University, said universities must rethink their culture to facilitate skills-based training. 

“You have to build that mindset within your institution,” Balakrishnan said. “It is a culture. It is a mindset. It is a paradigm shift in our thinking about how we teach our students.”

Balakrishnan argued that students need agency over their personal development. “It is about self-actualisation,” Balakrishnan said. “It is about the students directing and owning their own learning. Focus on collaborative outcomes as opposed to knowledge transfer. The role of the lecturer is that of a facilitator, as opposed to a teacher.”

Adel Ahmed, vice-president of institutional effectiveness at Amity University – Dubai Campus, said the term “soft skills” was a misnomer. He described them as human capability skills and, far from being soft, they were harder to teach and assess than technical skills.

Ahmed described how Amity provided its students with project-based learning and mentorship to support their development, advocating for closer collaboration with industry to address skills shortages. 

“The lack of cooperation has created this skills gap,” Ahmed said. “We need cooperation with industry and to work shoulder to shoulder so that students have the skills they need.”

While the debate was framed around the topic of skills training and student employability in the MENA region, there was consensus that universities had to adopt a global perspective when teaching skills.

Graduates now required emotional intelligence and communications skills to collaborate with colleagues across the world. “There are a lot of people here who are unemployable because they don’t have that culture of working together,” Ahmed said.

It was important to consider that undergraduate and postgraduate cohorts would have different skill sets, and to tailor their teaching programmes accordingly.

Coursera’s director of partnerships, Kerry Houchen, acknowledged the challenges that universities face. She said that the pandemic and automation were causing double disruption in industry, but Coursera could support universities when designing new curricula.

Houchen said that about 4.5 million learners from the MENA region use Coursera’s platform. Many are in employment. Others are students supplementing their university education. Tellingly, she said, the most popular course is a personal development module titled “Learning how to learn”.

“That is really showing that our ability to learn and relearn is going to be one of the most important skills that any of us can have,” Houchen said. “Not just at university but as adults in the working world.” 

The panel:

  • Adel Ahmed, vice-president of institutional effectiveness, Amity University – Dubai Campus
  • Suseela Balakrishnan, former deputy vice-chancellor (student journey), Muscat University
  • Kerry Houchen, director of partnerships, Coursera
  • Alistair Lawrence, special projects editor, Times Higher Education (chair)

Watch the round table on demand above or on the THE Connect YouTube channel.

Find out more about Coursera for Campus.

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