Try the workplace before finishing degree, urges bank president

David McKay hopes AI might help universities select students with vital ‘soft skills’

June 6, 2019
David McKay

The head of Canada’s largest bank has suggested that undergraduates might benefit from spending several years in the workplace before returning to university to complete their degrees.

David McKay, president and chief executive of the Royal Bank of Canada, told the Times Higher Education Teaching Excellence Summit that universities should make far greater use of “co-op” systems, in which students take a break from traditional course schedules to work in industry, then return to their classes with a stronger sense of purpose.

The model is a highlight of institutions such as the universities of Waterloo and Cincinnati, the Rochester Institute of Technology and Drexel and Northeastern universities, giving students both real-world job experience and some income.

Yet university leaders elsewhere have been deterred by various organisational complications and student resistance to the extended time frame, which often stretches students’ overall enrolment into a fifth year.

Mr McKay told the summit at Ontario’s Western University that educators needed to do more to insist on that value, saying that students and society were not served by the current decline of liberal arts enrolment in favour of supposedly safer career choices of mathematics and computer science.

“They simply don’t understand, or have the right context on, how their skill sets can fit into the new world of work,” Mr McKay said of undergraduates.

“Would students be better served”, he asked, “if they spent two years at school, entered the workforce for a couple of years, then finished off their degree with real work experience under their belt?”

He cited his own experience beginning work at the Royal Bank of Canada as an 18-year-old computer programmer while also studying at Waterloo. The combination of university training and job experience, he said, made him “a lot more valuable” to the company, and helped him to better understand his own work preferences.

Now, as the bank’s president, Mr McKay has been warning Canadians of the need to prepare for the rapid expansion of computerised automation instead of just fearing it. Rather than use the common term of “soft skills” to refer to communications and liberal arts, Mr McKay told the THE conference that those were “power skills”, increasingly essential to success in the future workplace.

But he expressed concern that universities were not identifying these skills in potential students at the application stage.

“I’m pretty convinced that you’re not accepting all the right students,” Mr McKay said. “And I really worry as an employer that if you’re not accepting them, then I’m not going to see them.”

Mr McKay argued that artificial intelligence systems could enable universities to make much more sophisticated assessments of their applicants.

Current human assessments might not be doing the job well enough given the volume of applications many colleges face, Mr McKay said. “Those students”, he said, “are incredibly talented, but they got missed, sometimes by their own fault, sometimes by the fault of the system.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Banker advises a spell in work before finishing degree

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