For many decades, universities have been educating students for a rather stable professional environment. The skills needed by professions such as medical doctors, lawyers, psychologists, or even historians and philosophers define the framework of programmes, course subjects and learning outcomes.
And beyond professions, there are well-established scientific disciplines such as physics, biology or political science, which provide the foundations for learning at universities. Academic attitudes and values such as the search for truthfulness, critical thinking and dealing with uncertainty permeate all of this.
The identity of the modern university in its teaching and learning function rests to a great deal on the interplay between research-based professional training, disciplinary education and academic values. In essence, it is a supply-side approach to education and learning, which constructs the identity of the university as learning environment.
However, this approach has come under pressure in recent years. Universities are increasingly criticized by employers (among other stakeholders) for not listening carefully enough to the skill needs of contemporary economies. Critical disputes and tensions, even conflict, between educational institutions and employers on what kind of knowledge and skills graduates bring to the labour market, are not new and mostly lead to a productive dialogue.
Currently though, there are many signs indicating that these tensions have accumulated and became explosive, with the risk of short circuits between both sides. An example is the public announcement of the global consultancy firm Ernst & Young in 2015 stating that it would no longer look at university qualifications when recruiting talent, because there was “no evidence that success at university correlates with achievement later in life”1.
One of the main reasons for the growing tension between supply-side approaches dominant in universities and calls by employers and other stakeholders to become more demand-sensitive is the profound changes in skill demand, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Universities are doing reasonably well in translating changes in scientific knowledge into course contents, but do not identify similarly important changes in skill demand in the external world and transform their education programmes accordingly.
Think, for example, of the consequences of digitalisation for the tasks that university-educated professionals will have to do by 2040.
Much more important than which jobs will disappear or how many alternative jobs will emerge as a result of digitalization, such as robotisation and artificial intelligence, is the question of the changes in the tasks of professionals, even the most stable ones.
Routine tasks, procedural labour and other ‘predictable activities’, even at a rather high level of cognitive demand, will gradually be taken over by smart machines. Imagine what this will do to, for example, legal professions, where large parts of what such professionals do today will be automated. Digitalisation will not be something affecting low-skilled jobs only, but will have a profound impact on what university-educated professionals will do in the future as well.
The complex and rather unpredictable shifts in skill demand will increase the importance of skills such as higher-order cognitive skills, complex communication skills and emotional skills. Higher-order cognitive skills are close to the research, deep-thinking and analytical skills that universities already develop in many programmes.
However, universities see these skills mainly as part of advanced programmes leading to research master’s or doctoral degrees. Understanding that such skills should no longer be preserved for excellent students aspiring research and academic careers, but rather be part of any university education, is a mind shift that most universities still have to make. Complex communication skills have slowly become part of the curriculum in various programmes, but a lot is still to be done in this area as well.
Finally, emotional skills are mostly seen as something to be developed in previous educational stages. They are also part of the explicit or implicit selection process through which students are admitted to a university education. Yet, evidence clearly shows that emotional skills are part of the ‘hidden curriculum’ of university education.
Universities can transform people into well-rounded individuals also in their personality traits, with clear progress on, for example, conscientiousness and openness. This explains why, even after controlling for variables such as income or employment, university-educated individuals are healthier and have higher levels of interpersonal trust than their lower-educated peers2. Addressing changing skill demand will require universities to explicitly look at these ‘soft’ skills as much as they are looking into higher-level cognitive skills.
In general, universities have been willing to update the curricula of their programmes and innovate to better meet external demands. In Europe, the implementation of the legislation following the Bologna Process has been an excellent opportunity to critically examine and revise curricula. Universities have even been prepared to listen more carefully to employer-driven demands and have, for example, included entrepreneurship education in some of their programmes. But the question is: will this be sufficient? More ambitious and forward-looking answers will be necessary.
In all variations on ‘the death of the university’-thesis, some experts have argued that universities are something of the past and will no longer be capable of addressing the skill development needs of highly volatile and uncertain economies and societies.
These experts believe that radical demand-driven approaches to 34 education and skills will favour a de-institutionalization of learning and the development of user-driven technology-based learning modes.
Universities will be asked to demonstrate the added-value of an institutional and supply-side approach to skills development. This is no easy task. But the value system of universities, driving enquiry, critical thinking and scientific attitudes, will prevail in the end. Atomized, user-driven learning will never be able to compete with universities for the development of such higher-order skills. That is no reason for complacency, but an argument to more ambitiously develop approaches to teaching and learning that prove to be effective, relevant and responsible.
1 Sherriff, L. (2017). Ernst & Young Removes Degree Classification From Entry Criteria As There’s ‘No Evidence’ University Equals Success. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost. co.uk/2016/01/07/ernst-and-young-re- moves-degree-classification-entry-crite- ria_n_7932590.html
2 OECD. Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/ skills/piaac/
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Dirk Van Damme is Head of Division in the Directorate for Education and Skills at the OECD in Paris. He holds a PhD in educational sciences from Ghent University and is also a professor of educational sciences at the same university (since 1995).