Jobs and the Future of Work

3 ways universities can adapt to the future of learning and work

Universities can adapt to become more efficient and effective educators.

Universities can adapt to become more efficient and effective educators. Image: Freepik.com

Mirielle Eaton
Lead, Knowledge Communities, World Economic Forum
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Jobs and Skills

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  • The future of work requires a holistic and inclusive educational approach.
  • Universities can help learners acquire the skills employees increasingly need.
  • We need an integrated, multi-pathway approach to education and jobs.

According to the World Economic Forum's 2023 Future of Jobs Report, 52% of CEOs believe that labour and skills shortages will significantly affect profitability in the next 10 years. The jobs landscape is expected to be drastically different in the future and change will continue at a rapid pace. In a survey, 91% of Millennials expect to stay in their jobs for less than three years. The need for a global Reskilling Revolution is clear.

Taking a skills-based approach, defined by UNESCO, as “alternative and multiple routes for engaging in learning, and a means of achieving educational qualifications alongside formal schooling”, places the emphasis on a person’s skills and competencies – rather than how those skills have been acquired. Democratizing access to economic opportunities and pathways to “good work” – setting a new benchmark for job quality – can help address labour and skills shortages.

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In a changing skills and education environment, we need to be clear about the wider role universities play can and how they might adapt to meet society’s needs. For instance, Minister of Education for Saudi Arabia, Yousef Al Benyan, speaking at the Growth Summit, reminded us that universities do more than teach degree courses: “Universities have a major role to innovate new business and they create the culture for their learners to come up with their own drive, not waiting for the market to direct them. If you look at much of the industry that we talk about, it came out of university labs.”

When it comes to teaching and preparing learners for work, universities are valuable stakeholders in the ecosystem. There are significant opportunities for them to take a more integrated approach to learning – working with employers and learners. Here are three key areas where universities can adapt to become more efficient and effective educators:

1. Embrace a skills-first approach

In many cases, a skills-first approach can be life-changing – giving individuals who haven’t attended university access to good jobs and financial security. Those who choose this alternative educational pathway gain valuable work experience, with the option to attend university or further education in the future. For universities, increasing the student population who have real-world work experience brings valuable insight to the classroom and helps to prepare other students for future employment.

For businesses, employees who go to university with specific industry knowledge can apply this context to their learning and return well-equipped to drive the business forward through innovation and leadership. For individuals, it opens up opportunities for professional growth beyond the scope of an exclusively skills-first approach.

To strengthen this pathway at all levels, universities can take concrete steps to attract and retain students based on a skills-first approach such as recruiting from non-traditional talent pools and reducing barriers to entry, e.g. testing and degree requirements. Once students are enrolled, universities can help ensure they thrive by providing pastoral support, counselling, flexible hours and appropriate accommodation.

2. Capitalize on a university’s strengths

The Future of Jobs report outlines the top 10 skills of 2023 – top of the list are analytical and creative thinking with “self-efficacy” skills also ranking highly. While there are many ways individuals can acquire these skills, they are difficult to teach in formats such as online micro-credentials. However, universities provide the perfect platform to develop these in-demand skills. To capitalize on this, universities should ensure these skills are taught as part of the curriculum and this is clearly communicated externally to prospective students and industry professionals.

For example, challenge-based learning brings together multi-disciplinary teams of students to find solutions to complex real-world problems. Oxford University’s SDG Impact Labs is one such example, integrating a 17-week training programme on ethics (values, character, purpose), evidence (observation, evaluation, experimentation) and engagement (communication, collaboration, delivery). A four-week placement with industry partners equips students with transferrable skills to lead transformative change in relation to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The challenge with this kind of programme is scaling, in this regard public-private partnerships could be invaluable. With the right stakeholders on board, developing these areas of competency helps drive businesses forward and enhance individuals’ careers in the long term.

3. Integrate traditional and alternative education pathways

Alternative pathways and higher education need not be mutually exclusive; learning should be a lifelong journey that integrates diverse, formal and informal methods. Just as universities are not the only road to employment, additional ways of acquiring skills such as micro-credentialing can also serve as a valuable tool – before, during and after university education.

Shravan Goli, COO of Coursera explains, “To succeed in a competitive and rapidly evolving job market, the next generation of talent requires a combination of broad-based education and specific workplace skills. Universities are integrating industry micro-credentials from top companies into their degree programmes to produce job-ready graduates and reduce the cost of education as students and employers alike expect higher education to become more flexible, affordable, and relevant."

Another concept is a membership model, where students engage in a university-curated lifelong learning journey, interspersed with other skills acquisition activities. While this idea remains largely theoretical, it points to the opportunities for innovation in the field.

Lifelong learning

Universities are reimagining not only their role, but more broadly what it will take to build an inclusive, highly educated society ready to contribute to improving the state of the world. As they do, they will benefit from embracing the innovations happening in skills and education. As universities and other learning providers develop these opportunities the learning horizon will become richer. Learning providers can create partnerships that harness each other’s strengths and build programmes and pathways that accompany learners on that lifelong journey.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Jobs and the Future of WorkEducation and Skills
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