UK universities must do far more to develop skills for an AI-first world

Financial strain shrinks risk appetite, but Kingston is teaching and assessing the skills employers crave as a core part of every subject, says Steven Spier

December 19, 2023
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Our students know better than we do that the world for which we’re preparing them may be unrecognisable even by the time they complete their degrees. Recent YouGov polling for Kingston University shows that 50 per cent of all current UK students think their jobs will be under threat from AI. Surely, then, it is incumbent on universities and policymakers to respond to this challenge – and quickly.

Many of us have been rethinking learning outcomes and assessments, embedding AI into courses and providing guidance to academics. These measures, however, all miss the wider point. The mission of higher education, after all, is to ensure the creation and dissemination of knowledge and to build productive, engaged and healthy members of society. So if everything is about to change, what we learn, and how, must change as well.

Unfortunately, the political, policy and, dare I say, academic leadership preoccupations of the past five years have been subsumed in immediate and dispiriting challenges around funding and regulation. While those are becoming existential threats, we nevertheless need to confront how we prepare our graduates for an AI-driven world, both professionally and personally.

At Kingston, we have surveyed thousands of businesses over the past three years to hear about the skills they need to meet the challenges of the future. They consistently cite problem-solving, communication, digital competency, critical thinking, analytical ability, adaptability, initiative, resilience, relationship-building and creativity. These couldn’t be further from the way skills are discussed by the government or in the policy arena, which tends to focus much more narrowly on traditional, subject-specific perceptions of skills, such as numeracy and literacy.

We have translated those skills into graduate attributes that we will teach and assess in every subject in every year as a core part of the curriculum. Critically, this means all our graduates will have the skills to work with emerging technology but in a human-centric way that AI cannot easily replicate. This reflects the fact that the best way to negotiate AI’s challenges and gain its benefit is to understand the added value of being human.

A key takeaway from the Future Skills prototypes we ran last year is that this learning is most effective when delivered as an integral part of degrees. But while a university, by definition, encompasses varied ways of understanding and addressing issues, the English system, with its preference for narrow subject knowledge, does not, typically, expose students to that.

To counter this, we use a lot of project-based problem-solving, bringing together students from different programmes. Imagine what a shock it can be for first-years to discover that there are many possible approaches to a challenge and that you can learn through failure instead of being penalised for it.

We have a growing number of businesses and politicians supporting our approach. Our agenda is also backed generously by a philanthropic foundation. But it can’t be right that innovation has become so difficult for higher education, both politically and financially. Continual social and technological changes make it even clearer that universities’ mission is to help create a better future: they need to be allowed the freedom and resources to do that.

The UK government needs to allow businesses to access training through a range of mechanisms, such as the apprenticeship levy and the lifelong learning entitlement and other policies that allow individuals to dip in and out of training as circumstances change. But we must go further and align universities’ teaching and learning missions more closely with the nation’s innovation and economic growth. And to that end, we need to move universities out of the Department for Education, with its history and culture of regulating schools, and in to the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and the Department for Business and Trade.

Even then, we will struggle to innovate if, at the same time, we are struggling just to survive. Discussions about the current funding models are often driven by the euphemism of efficiency but are uninformed by consideration of lost opportunities: with the best will in the world, an unsustainable funding model will inevitably shrink higher education’s ambitions and risk appetite. We need to fix the funding issue, fast.

Because while these suggestions may seem radical, they are nothing compared with the scale of change our students, staff and institutions are about to face.

Steven Spier is vice-chancellor of Kingston University.

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Reader's comments (1)

I was reminded of following the quote by Lin Yutang: "The ideal educated [person] is not necessarily one who is well-read or learned, but one who likes and dislikes the right things" [The Importance of Living (362)]. Sometimes the hardest part of designing anything is decoding what to leave out. In future rather than asking what is in the curriculum future university applicants would be better advised to ask "what has been left out?"