How do universities prepare graduates for jobs that don't yet exist?
Universities determine the future: they shape it through their research and prepare students for tomorrow’s jobs. But in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution, it’s hard to know what the future will look like.
Technological changes such as automation and artificial intelligence are expected to transform the employment landscape. The question is: will our education system keep up?
The answer matters because an estimated 65% of children entering primary schools today will work in jobs and functions that don’t currently exist, according to a recent Universities UK report. The research, which explores the “rapid pace of change and increasing complexity of work”, also warns that the UK isn’t even creating the workers that will be needed for the jobs that can be anticipated. By 2030, it will have a talent deficit of between 600,000 and 1.2 million workers in the financial and business sector, and technology, media and telecommunications sector. University leaders would be “foolish” not to pay attention, says Lancaster University vice-chancellor Mark E Smith. “We look at the trends in the job market and the skills employers are looking for, and we listen to what employers are saying.
We don’t want to be talking about yesterday’s problem.” This is one of the reasons the university is a partner in the National Institute of Coding. The programme, led by the University of Bath, is bringing 25 universities together with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and global companies including IBM, Cisco, BT and Microsoft to create “the next generation of digital specialists”. It’s not before time: a 2017 survey found that half of the UK’s digital tech businesses are struggling with a shortage of highly skilled employees.
Meanwhile, a recent government report on the growing artificial intelligence industry recommended that an industry-funded masters’ programme be created to meet the needs for “a larger workforce with deep AI expertise”. But being prepared for the future is about more than just technical know-how.
A report from Pearson on employment in the year 2030 found that there is a need for skills such as judgment, decision-making, and analysis and evaluation of systems.
Jordan Morrow, chair of the Data Literacy Project advisory board and global head of data literacy at US-based analytics firm Qlik, thinks that in a climate of uncertainty, universities should focus on developing the thing they have specialised in for centuries: critical thinking. “We need people who can give insight, not just observations,” he says. Jordan Morrow, chair of the Data Literacy Project advisory board and global head of data literacy at US-based analytics firm Qlik, thinks that in a climate of uncertainty, universities should focus on developing the thing they have specialised in for centuries: critical thinking. “
We need people who can give insight, not just observations,” he says. Likewise, he says, the “softer” skills of communication and storytelling are vital. “The reality is that data scientists are trained to do very complex and complicated things with data, but their training is not necessarily in people skills or leadership. It becomes an issue when you have, say, a very intelligent data scientist who has put together an analysis, but doesn’t know how to communicate it.” It’s not just skills that are changing.
The Universities UK report predicts a total overhaul of how education is delivered, and warns that the “linear model of education-employment-career will no longer be sufficient”. It will instead require “flexible partnerships” between universities and employers and new course formats.
This is something that Lancaster University is experimenting with. A new initiative starting in 2019 and named UA92 (after the FA Youth Cup-winning 1992 Manchester United team) will allow students to study at times that might better suit them than the three-year residential model, Smith explains, and focus on character development, to better prepare learners for the world of work. Many jobs are vulnerable to automation. Knowing how to set up a business will be one way of insuring against unemployment.
A recent study found that a quarter of students are running, or planning to run, their own businesses alongside their studies. University of East Anglia is looking to promote entrepreneurialism through its in-house enterprise centre. Several SMEs are based there that also mentor students, according to pro vice-chancellor Sarah Barrow.
Maya Pindeus was one of those students. She graduated from Imperial College London in 2017 with a master’s degree in innovation design, and had already established her company, Humanising Autonomy. The startup, created as a prototype with two fellow students during her degree, builds autonomous car software.
Pindeus credits her company’s success with the way her education wasn’t shaped by a single discipline - she originally trained as an architect. “This approach should be adopted by institutions worldwide,” she says. But universities may not be doing enough to equip their students with fundamental data skills.
Qlik’s Global Data Literacy Report found that only 21% of those aged 16-24 classified themselves as being data literate, a figure Morrow says is “concerningly low”.
He thinks that the current generation of students are best placed to take advantage of emerging fields such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of things - so long as they learn the basics first. “[This] will empower them in data-disrupted industries.”