JiscSkills-focused learning creates employable graduates

Skills-focused learning creates employable graduates

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Making personal development a guiding principal in curriculum design can help universities prepare students for tomorrow’s workplace

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will have profound consequences for how we work, with many career paths closing and new opportunities emerging. Students now enrol on higher education courses in the knowledge that they will pursue several careers during their working life. Universities have always played a crucial role in preparing people for the workplace, but how can they best serve students in an era of such radical change, in which reskilling and upskilling will be required as a matter of course?

Such a complex issue asks questions of a university’s academic mission. Nora Senior is the executive chair (UK regions/Ireland) of corporate communications consultancy Weber Shandwick and chairs the Scottish government’s Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board. She believes that employability must figure heavily in a university’s teaching if the UK is to bridge an extant skills gap that is being widened by technological upheaval.

“If you ask any business what is the greatest challenge that they face, it is attracting the right skills for their place of work,” she says. “Although [in the UK and Ireland] we have very high levels of tertiary education and very high qualifications among students and learners, we have the greatest percentage of under-utilisation of skills among OECD countries, which means that we are delivering quality education to our students but perhaps not equipping them for the jobs that are available.”

Anticipating the needs of the future jobs market is not easy. Senior believes that it makes careers services all the more important, and that personal development should be established as a core component of university education. “Digital skills need to be the key focus that we are looking at going forward,” she says. “Self-awareness, good communication, teamwork, civic responsibility: those are core aptitudes that industry will look for, irrespective of what is coming down the line in terms of jobs.”

Andy Powell, cloud chief technical officer at Jisc, the UK body for digital technology and resources in higher education, further education, skills and research., approaches the issue from the technologist’s perspective. He says that the rate of change is accelerating exponentially and believes that universities are caught in a “double whammy” of trying to digitise their own organisations while also providing students with workplace-relevant abilities. Skills such as research will always be needed, and the demand for data-literate graduates is unlikely to wane in the near future. Jisc’s recent report on the future of assessment sets our five principles and targets for the next five years to progress assessment towards being more authentic, accessible, appropriately automated, continuous and secure and to meet the needs of the workforce.

“I don’t think we all need to be data scientists,” he says. “We don’t all need to be programmers. But we do need to understand data at a relatively high level – those are important skills.” The workplace is fast-evolving towards a more decentralised and more collaborative, project-orientated space, he adds. For universities integrating a similarly mobile and collaborative educational environment, there are difficulties regarding assessment that need addressing, but Powell believes that there is value to be had in replicating the collaborative dynamic of the workplace on campus.

While universities shoulder much of the responsibility for skilling the workforce, Senior believes the entire educational ecosystem needs fresh thinking, and that both industry and policymakers need to play a more proactive role.

“We need to embed this type of learning, these types of digital skills, within schools and colleges as well as universities,” she says. “Businesses have to also get into the mindset to invest in workforce training. Investing in management, leadership and digital skills is going to be essential if a company wants to continue to grow and be successful.”

In a future-facing educational ecosystem, universities could embrace new opportunities to engage individuals across the span of their career, offering them the opportunity to upskill without leaving employment. “I think it is incumbent on universities to explore how they can provide those bite-sized chunks of learning and education that people will be able to and will want to do throughout the course of their career,” says Senior, who also notes that this investment in people creates a positive feedback loop. Metrics such as well-being and mental health are linked to better employment outcomes. Delivering the latter helps society progress. It could scarcely be more important.

Andy Powell will be speaking at Digifest 2020, held at ICC in Birmingham on 10-11 March. Entry is free for Jisc member organisations. Register here by 1 March.

This article was commissioned by Times Higher Education in partnership with Jisc, the UK body for digital technology and resources in higher education, further education, skills and research.

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