Disruption by degrees

As technology transforms the world, our education systems need to adapt to equip students with a 21st-century armoury of skills. By Dr Tim Jones

Learning is a driver of change: better access to improved educational approaches is a catalyst for empowerment and economic growth, a way of overcoming inequality and reducing conflict.

Arguably, the current system should be updated. Some would suggest we are still supporting a colonial system that needed the physical equivalent of a global processer, using clerks instead of computers. Good handwriting, the ability to read and excellent mental arithmetic were all required. Today, rather than focus on the past, education, in particular our universities, needs to look to the future and better prepare students to take an active role in our hyper-connected, multicultural, collaborative and digital world. 

Education helps drive the economy by preparing students for employment. But how we work is changing rapidly. Increasingly, technology and automation has shrunk the safety net for non-graduates and is even impacting so-called professional careers – doctors and lawyers. Many graduates from traditional schools are struggling to find employment. And yet many employers talk of recruitment problems. The issue is not the absence of roles, it is the availability of people with the right qualifications and skills. 

What then should students study? There will always be a space for those with the ability to articulate, analyse and adapt, so giving students language and cultural skills so they can more easily collaborate and compete on an international platform is a good start. Studying away from home can help immensely. Science, technology and engineering, and maths (STEM) students are likely to remain in demand. By 2030 two thirds of all STEM graduates will come from China and India and those who are best able to communicate their technical knowledge to others are on to a winner.

Despite the growing cost of university, student numbers are rising, particularly in emerging economies. For most this is a good investment – in the US, for example, graduates, on average, are paid 15 per cent more per annum than non-graduates. But employers don’t necessarily reap the same rewards because of the difficulty in measuring the quality of education candidates have received. Many prefer to recruit graduates from high-prestige universities, not because of what they were taught, rather because of the effort they made to get there. It seems a great waste of student time and public money.

But things are changing and given the increasingly international, thus competitive, nature of education we can expect a more rigorous process to emerge over the next decade allowing employers to understand the knowledge students have gained, increasing transparency for the governments and private organisations investing in it and ensuring students make better use of their study time. 

Few college leavers now expect to have a job for life and many are hazy about what their future career will be. Most will end up doing jobs that were inconceivable even five years ago and will probably go on to build portfolio careers via multiple projects with different organisations. This is a huge adjustment and to help them compete students need to learn about risk-taking, innovation and entrepreneurship from an early age. Universities can help by becoming more flexible by shifting from emphasis on fact and memory to one of greater analysis, interpretation and communication. Employers place an increasing emphasis on the importance of the emotional alongside the intelligence quotient of employees.

Some companies are addressing this by providing practical tuition for students. Corporate education initiatives provide relevant teaching with case studies. But this misses the challenging nature of a true academic process. A far better solution is for universities and employers to collaborate more closely. This will be a non-linear process, as workers will need to update their skills and knowledge throughout their working life. 

The next decade will see a dramatic increase in the use of technology for learning. As “generation mash-up” matures, why should learning only come from one institution at a time when MOOCs, YouTube, Coursera, Google and even Facebook are all providing us with knowledge? Learning from multiple centres presents a challenge in maintaining a recognised standard of achievement. But the system can be adapted. If curricula become more flexible, how we see the level of competence may change too. 

Technology and the information revolution have enabled a style of learning and of working that wasn’t possible before. Our education system needs to evolve accordingly.

This article is based on Future Agenda discussions with educational experts in London, Dubai, Noordwijk, Johannesburg, Hong Kong, Rome, Washington DC, Istanbul, Mumbai, Bangalore and Singapore.