Do universities actually equip students with the tools for tomorrow?

Universities claim to bestow on graduates the key to open the door to any job: critical thinking. But even if they do, are employers interested?

August 3, 2017
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If you attend a lot of conferences, and many of you do, you’ll know that there are certain phrases and concepts that become clichés almost overnight.

A current favourite in any game of conference bingo is the observation that we are now educating students for jobs that do not yet exist.

This is typically followed by a discussion about whether universities should be delivering industry-specific skills or taking a broader focus to equip graduates with the intellectual capacity to prosper come what may.

That this is an issue universities have been grappling with, one way or another, for some time does not make it any less pressing.

Artificial intelligence and automation are fundamental challenges to the way we live and work, and universities are right to be thinking deeply about how to respond.

In our news pages, we talk to Michael Spence, vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney, about his attempts to get to grips with this brave new world, and how Sydney is fundamentally restructuring its undergraduate education.

The approach includes lengthening many undergraduate programmes from three to four years, with a focus on an extended problem-solving project, “cultural competency” training and a return to languages as an important life skill.

And, as we report, Sydney is not alone – universities around the world are conducting similar reviews.

A key question in all this is what universities can point to as their defining feature, the thing they can hold up as proof that they deliver transformational education that equips graduates for life, and not just their first job.

The unique selling point most commonly cited is critical thinking – the crucial skill, possessed by all graduates, that proves that universities reach the parts that other forms of education do not. That’s the theory.

In our cover story, we ask whether this mantra stands up to scrutiny – and whether critical thinking is indeed a ticket to professional success.

The attributes tied to critical thinking might include an ability to evaluate and construct arguments, to identify and avoid ill-founded assumptions and assertions, an approach based in logic, independence of thought and advanced problem-solving.

If all these things sound like must-haves in a changing world of work, then it’s perhaps odd that these are not, typically, the things that students talk about when you ask them what they think is most valuable in their undergraduate experience.

Perhaps it was ever thus, but it’s still a genuinely surprising exercise: ask the president of a students’ union what their peers value most and they are far more likely to mention something like volunteering.

Without wanting to disparage public service, this raises the question of what higher education is really for.

Bruce Macfarlane, professor of higher education at the University of Southampton, has expressed concern about this in the past. Students, he has argued, are expected to “show undiluted enthusiasm for global citizenship, collaborative learning, environmental sustainability and social justice among other voguish value positions”.

Where in this list is critical thinking, the supposed USP of higher education?

“To take issue with values such as global citizenship might seem like attacking Bambi,” Macfarlane continued. “But their aggressive promotion within the curriculum is seriously at odds with a liberal conception of a ‘higher’ education.

“This needs to empower rather than restrict students in developing their own ideas, giving them the confidence to critique sacred tropes rather than display a slavish commitment to them.”

Our cover story also poses a secondary question: even if critical thinking is achievable as a common output of higher education, is it something that employers really value?

A number of major professional services firms have stated that they no longer see a link between prior success in higher education and future success in professional qualifications and performance. Uncomfortable as it may be, this needs considering in any review.

It could be because critical thinking is not what these employers or professions are seeking – that what they want are oven-ready employees primed with the requisite skills, which universities might not be best placed to deliver.

But it could also be because universities are not inculcating this supposed hallmark of higher education as effectively as they might like to think.

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