Focus on employability as AI takes graduate roles, says report

Technology’s disruption of traditional career paths should push universities into focusing on ‘human skills’ students need to succeed, say Demos and University of London

November 8, 2023
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Universities will need to take on more of a role in teaching students the “soft skills” they might no longer learn in the workplace as entry-level positions are replaced by automation, according to a report.

The thinktank Demos and the University of London warn that rapid developments in artificial intelligence might remove the “bottom rung of the career ladder”, with positions previously filled by graduates being done by computers instead.

Universities should be urgently reviewing their employability strategies in light of the changes, the report argues, and should draw together the expertise of careers, teaching and research staff to come up with new ways to prioritise the teaching of areas such as critical analysis, problem-formulation and interpersonal skills, given that graduates might no longer be able to develop these in their first jobs.

Institutions should also extend work experience placements or adopt approaches such as sandwich courses and degree-level apprenticeships to “smooth the transition from study to more productive graduate positions”, according to the report, The AI Generation: How universities can prepare students for the changing world, published on 8 November.

It says there is also an opportunity for universities to work more closely with professional statutory and regulatory bodies such as the Bar Council and the General Medical Council to consider how to equip future generations with the “specific and generic skills” required as professions change because of advances in technology.

“We know that technology is disrupting the future of work, and that AI promises more turbulence to come, but the good news is that there are practical, tangible steps that universities can take to equip their students with what they need to succeed – the human skills and judgement that will complement technology,” said the report’s author, Richard Brown, visiting fellow of the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

“As technology redefines professional roles and career paths, universities have a critical role to play not just in giving students the skills they need to flourish and helping them take the first steps in their career, but in actively leading a wider debate about the future of work, and the skills and education that it will demand.”

Among the other recommendations in the report are suggestions that universities should integrate the teaching of AI into their courses and that the English regulator, the Office for Students, should oversee its impact on university teaching and learning to ensure that the most disadvantaged are not negatively impacted.

A review of funding for higher education is also needed, the report says, to ensure that more co-curricular and extracurricular activities – or flexible provision – can take place to give students access to “broader experiences to boost their long-term employability prospects”.

Wendy Thomson, vice-chancellor of the University of London, said the report’s research “reinforces the vital work universities are undertaking to equip students for a workforce transformed by AI and automation”.

Universities “have a pivotal role to play in ensuring our students have the skills and experiences they need to build successful careers”, she added, but the sector must move quickly to make sure “that everyone is given a fair chance”.

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Reader's comments (1)

Placement years are fantastic... if sufficient employers are willing to take on and pay an undergraduate for that year. Even on courses where there's a mandatory placement, there still are students who struggle to find one. Can the government in some way incentivse companies to take placement students, seeing as they are - as ever - reluctant to step up and aid in the development of the skills they keep demanding that graduates should have?