July 22, 2022

Transforming higher education for the long term

For those in the world’s wealthiest countries, tertiary education has now become the norm – especially among the 18-34-year-old demographic.


The accepted wisdom is that the costs of acquiring a university education are far outweighed by the advantages it confers, including better employment prospects and higher whole-of-career earnings. In the UK, statistics from DfE show that the median annual salary for graduates is £34,000, while non-graduates can expect to earn £25,000: a lifetime earnings gap of £321,000.


And yet, the narrative is shifting. In our digital-first world, degrees are no longer for life. As we move through a global landscape transformed by technology, every generation will have to be prepared to enter a continuous cycle of learning and re-learning to have any chance of keeping pace with change.


It’s a trend that’s already impacting higher education provision on a global basis, driving the evolution of degree courses that reflect the urgent demand for more responsive, iterative, and adaptive programmes of learning – and that serve the needs of a more diverse student population.


Renewed focus on skills

At a time when the global jobs market is especially buoyant, it’s skills that are in demand, not award titles. However, supply isn’t meeting employers’ expectations.


A 2019 paper from government advisory body The Industrial Strategy Council showed that while demand for skills – especially tech and soft skills – in the UK is set to soar over the next decade, their supply will be heavily constrained. This mismatch reflects both a shortage of highly sought skills, on the one hand, coupled with an over-supply in lower-skilled sectors, on the other, as more traditional skills are displaced by the rise of automation in a tech-led economy.


The same analysis predicts that that by the end of this decade, a further 7 million workers could find themselves critically under skilled – amounting to circa 20 percent of the labour market – with ‘workplace’ skills likely to be in particularly short supply. In fact, with 80 percent of the 2030 workforce already in employment today, the task of reskilling the existing workforce is likely to be among the biggest challenges facing governments, educationalists, and employers between now and 2030.


Preparing for the future of work

And yet, while the number of university graduates continues to rise, concern is being voiced about the lack of correlation between academic achievement and job-readiness.


This may be due, in part, to employers increasingly limiting their candidate pool to graduates – even when their available roles aren’t degree-related (and non-graduates of a similar age may have more relevant work experience) – as well as to a sharp spike in demand for talented recruits in some key sectors, like STEM.


Whatever the cause, the dissonance is significant. In a 2022 report from Universities UK, data from the OECD shows that 14 percent of the UK’s workforce are overqualified for their current jobs, while double that number are deemed ‘underqualified’.


Meanwhile, employers are increasingly looking for well-rounded candidates. They want their employees to not only demonstrate in-depth subject knowledge but to also manifest the resilience and EQ they’ll need to interact with an infinitely more complex and geographically distributed workforce. In a future disrupted by AI, those who can excel at the jobs machines can’t easily master will find themselves in greater demand.


That influential HR studies – like this one from Manpower – are recognising the value of adaptability and collaboration alongside sought-after tech skills shows how far we’ve already moved along this path. It’s a shift HE leaders can’t afford to ignore.


Considering costs…

In some respects, UK universities are bucking the international trend for lower enrolments. UCAS reported a 5 percent increase on applications to HE in 2021 compared to 2020 – equating to more than 600,000 across all ages. The number of students starting first degree courses in 2020 was also up 8 percent on the previous year, according to HESA. However, this rise is accompanied by a steep and continuing post-Brexit decline in EU applications to UK universities.


At the same time, students’ costs for full-time degree study are climbing – not only in terms of tuition fees but also due to the effects of inflation on rents, food, and clothing – which is impacting the viability of campus-based courses for some. And, while the structuring of student loans means that many UK students won’t fully repay their debt, the fact that the government is considering lowering the repayment threshold by more than £2000 to £25,000 may cause students from poorer backgrounds pause for thought when considering their post-18 options.


…and promoting equal opportunities

Dissuading socio-economically disadvantaged students from seeking university places runs in stark opposition to most HE leaders’ goals.


Students from privileged backgrounds are already more likely to achieve better grades and enjoy higher levels of career success than their less privileged peers. Research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) shows they are less likely to drop-out and more likely to graduate with a first or 2:1 than those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Rather than boosting meritocracy, universities could, rightly, be accused of further reinforcing existing inequalities.


To ensure HE institutions serve a more meritocratic purpose, it’s important for their leaders to support broader pathways to enrolment and achievement.


Providing online, hybrid and blended learning options that enable prospective students to study closer to home or to balance their courses with work or caring commitments will empower those from more disadvantaged backgrounds to improve their prospects with commensurately less risk. Establishing and strengthening non-traditional access points will also create routes into HE for workers looking to reskill or upskill throughout their careers.


Balancing teaching and research goals

However, democratising learning will also entail balancing the demands of research and teaching.


There’s little doubt that research drives growth and innovation, at the same time attracting top academic talent to elite universities. However, the rewards of research – especially the kudos of publishing which is key to unlocking generous grants – can make it seem like teaching is something of a distraction from a university’s ‘real’ business. Finding the sweet spot between the research lab and the classroom can be elusive but it’s an equation that must be solved to ensure that students from all walks of life get the education they deserve.


Moving the conversation forward

Although the precise nature of jobs in the future is hard to predict, it’s probable that they will require a very different range of skills than those possessed by current graduates. Which is why much will depend on graduates’ ability to apply their learning to new scenarios, as well as their willingness to engage in the cycle of unlearning and relearning that will underpin lifelong career development.


With forward-thinking companies committed to addressing skills shortages by linking education and work through flexible learning loops, fresh opportunities for HE collaboration and diversification are being created every day.


For HE institutions, planning for long-term success requires similar pragmatism, as well as an acknowledgement that change is inevitable (and welcome) and that it can be shaped and directed for the benefit of all stakeholders.

  • Leadership must be empowered to recognise and embrace the innovation and diversification that will underpin resilience.
  • For transformation to embed and flourish, commitment to the broader vision at board level is a prerequisite.
  • Targeting growth can yield more positive results than planning greater efficiencies – which can adversely impact student outcomes.


Universities need to be prepared for the long haul. The pandemic-driven firefighting needs to give way to a sustained approach to far-reaching change. In the future, success won’t necessarily be defined by the acquisition of a degree, but by individual potential and the ability to learn, apply, and adapt.


A sector-defining transformation is one that will move beyond short-term stopgap measures, instead focusing on creating the infrastructure and building the capacity essential to disrupt obsolete practices and establish new ones designed to provide lifelong learning opportunities for all.


Arif Hossen

2023-02-19 12:22:54

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