How does academia plan to keep up with the future of work?

11 Oct 2017

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What seemed current 10 years ago in education is a lifetime away for the average student, so how do universities plan to keep up?

Future of Work Week

The simple fact is that in a highly connected world, the pace of technological change is so fast that a smartphone from five years ago can seem like an old-fashioned brick when compared to the latest must-have gadget.

The same goes in employment where, in the space of 10 years, dozens of new roles have been created for jobs that never existed up until that point, such as a cloud computing specialist, millennial generational expert or social media manager.

This puts significant pressure on companies to remain on top of what the latest trends are at all times, but even more so for the universities that are helping to set young people off on their individualised career paths.

But how different is the university experience of 10 years ago from today?

‘What’s very clear is that what our kids need to do is learn how to learn, and become very flexible and adaptable’

According to a recent report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), the jobs of the future will be defined by the actual working experience made available to them, with 44pc of responders to a survey citing it as their top trend-driver.

This sentiment of a changing academic world is echoed by Susan Lund from the McKinsey Global Institute who previously described a less predictable role for students.

“The idea that you get an education when you’re young and then you stop and you go and work for 40 or 50 years with that educational training and that’s it – that’s over,” she said.

“All of us are going to have to continue to adapt, get new skills, and possibly go back for different types of training and credentials. What’s very clear is that what our kids need to do is learn how to learn, and become very flexible and adaptable.”

Learning by rote can’t continue

Within Ireland, universities are already adapting to new challenges, both in terms of the evolving mentality of today’s career path and the technologies that are constantly being updated for use in academia and beyond.

In recent weeks, Dublin City University (DCU) launched its new five-year strategic plan entitled Talent, Discovery and Transformation.

Within its vision for the next few years is a strong emphasis on creativity, sustainability and the integration of technology across all aspects of teaching, learning, research and innovation.

The university’s president, Prof Brian MacCraith, said the need to innovate, and innovate now, was driven home following an appearance he made at the previous WEF in Davos, Switzerland.

He described to how the same attributes kept coming up when discussing what major corporations will be looking for from graduates in 2020: analytical thinking, empathy, emotional intelligence and the ability to collaborate.

But then, of course, there is the fact that universities are going to need to be leading from the front for their students to have access to, as well as an understanding of, the latest technology.


Image: 7th Son Studio/Shutterstock

Fluid degrees

MacCraith points to just a few examples of technology in demand from the likes of PwC and Deloitte, such as artificial intelligence, the internet of things and data analytics.

Universities need to think about using these more in their programmes, regardless of what the primary focus of the degree is.

“It’s not simply saying that graduates will all emerge as data scientists, but equally they won’t emerge with a complete lack of knowledge in these areas,” MacCraith said.

“[This enables graduates to be] up to speed on the applications of those rapidly emerging areas of technology that are going to transcend the nature of those jobs.”

This can be achieved by listening out for the latest trends, and keeping track of what both prospective students and companies are looking for – but not to the point that they end up being simply told what to do, which is an issue academics often raise, according to MacCraith.

It incorporates holding events such as hackathons, conferences and, in DCU’s case, ‘living degrees’, which let students take workshops to brush up on the latest tech trends towards the end of their degrees to make sure they aren’t left behind, such is the pace of change.

Stark disconnects in education levels

So, it’s clear that universities such as DCU are keeping their fingers close to the pulse of what’s coming down the line, but are the students ready for it?

MacCraith admits that the Irish education system in its current state has major disconnects, which are “most stark” at the transition from secondary to third-level education with the Leaving Cert and points system.

While universities try to pivot their strategies on a regular basis, second-level education is incredibly slow to change, relying heavily on a ‘learn by rote’ system that does little but test a student’s memory.

‘As a former student almost a decade out of the education system, I can’t help but think of the famous line: “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more”’

This, you could argue, fails to prepare them for the drastic shift they experience in third level, and does little to build the critical-thinking mind so sought after by the world’s biggest companies.

There have been some changes, however, with the Junior Cert evolving to include continuous assessment, which MacCraith and other leaders of Irish universities are happy to see.

“[Continuous assessment for Junior Cert] exactly matches up with the attributes of trying to develop an individual and a more rounded student,” MacCraith said, adding that he hopes to see the Leaving Cert follow suit and become a “distributed examination system”, an issue that has been raised for nearly two decades.

“It’s well established that what you assess is what you get. If you don’t measure it, then it’s not seen as important and students and teachers will act accordingly.”

As a former student almost a decade out of the education system, I can’t help but think of the famous line: “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic