Making sure graduates use their skills in the workplace could become as important to education policymakers as the quality of university learning in the first place, according to a report that warns that skills “atrophy” if left dormant.
The Learning Curve: Education and Skills for Life, published by the education firm Pearson on 8 May, uses the example of South Korea, which shows a particularly sharp drop in problem-solving skills for adults once they pass the age of 24.
Part of the explanation is that a higher than average proportion of the country’s graduates do not go on to employment or further training, “a situation in which their hard-won skills are more likely to atrophy”, it suggests.
It cites Eric Hanushek, an educational economist based at Stanford University, as saying that whether or not skills are put to use in employment – and so kept sharp – will be as big a part of the future education debate as formal education itself.
Sir Michael Barber, Pearson’s chief education adviser, told Times Higher Education that in the 21st century “it’s clear that however great your first degree is, you’re going to have to keep learning”.
Because there is so little certainty about what the jobs of the future will involve, universities must train graduates with the right “attitudes and attributes” to keep learning for life, he said, noting that this was something the “best” higher education already did.
Universities should focus on this when trying to improve employability, he added, rather than on “preparation for a specific job”.
Although some universities and institutional leaders are “thinking radically” about this, he said, “individual academics” found it “harder” to accept this idea.
Sir Michael added: “If graduates leave with a love of learning, that’s good for employability.”
The report also warns that widening access to education through technology – massive open online courses, for example – “appears to be not enough” to retrain under-skilled adults because those likely to take Moocs are already highly educated.
This is because people who have already learned a lot will have the confidence to continue, Sir Michael said. “That goes into reverse for people who struggle at school.”