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Centre for Online and Distance Education

How do you prepare students for an unpredictable future?


Globalisation, the gig economy, the 4th Industrial Revolution, the 100-year life, Work 4.0, the post-COVID workplace, the Great Resignation, the sustainability revolution, the metaverse — the number of forces driving transformation in the world of work seems to be growing at an accelerating rate. As a result, the in-demand skills that increase one’s chances of staying employable throughout one’s working life are also constantly changing.

"What is the ultimate purpose of higher education?" asks David Winter, Head of Research & Organisational Development at The Careers Group, University of London.

Many of the changes in the labour market have not worked out in exactly the ways predicted by the fortune tellers because these change drivers interact in complex, non-linear ways with other social and psychological factors. Even if we can predict which skills we need to equip our students with so that they can gain employment in the first place, it is likely that most of them will need to update their skills or acquire an entirely new set of skills at least once in their careers.

Given this level of change and uncertainty, how can we best prepare our students for the future?

In future posts, we will look at the future-focused skills identified by the World Economic Forum and the insights gained by viewing the job market as a VUCA* environment. In this post, I would like to focus on how the fundamental purpose of the education system is connected to the task of equipping our students to deal with the future.

So, back to the question posed at the top of this post – what is the ultimate purpose of higher education? Is it to acquire, codify and transmit knowledge? Is it to manufacture employable graduates, shaped to meet the demands of the economy? The debate about the purpose of higher education often seems to be a tug-of-war between these two, seemingly opposing, viewpoints.

One possible defining purpose of higher education which straddles these two extremes and which provides the best chance of preparing our students for the future is that our role is to nurture confident, critically-reflective and courageous life-long learners. We want to instil in our students the unshakeable belief that they can get to grips with any new technology, new domain of learning or new ideas if they put their minds to it. We want them to constantly re-evaluate the utility and currency of their existing learning, and to be ready to embrace the risk of taking on new learning challenges throughout their lives.

If this is the mission of higher education, then what are the things we could do to better achieve that mission. Here are a few suggestions and questions.

Encourage transdisciplinary learning — Is there a better way to help students develop the adaptability, open-mindedness and confidence to learn new things they will need than to ask them to step outside their comfort zone of familiarity to engage with topics outside their subject area and with people from different disciplines with different perspectives?

Encourage peer learning — Is there a better way to motivate students to learn and a better critical test of their understanding and ability to communicate than having them attempt to teach what they have learnt to others?

Encourage co-creation of learning — Is there a better way to get students to think about how they and other people learn best than to involve them in the design of learning, to lift the lid on the workings of the pedagogical engine and to provide role models of life-long learners willing to learn from their students?

Encourage self-directed learning — Is there a better way of helping students to develop the autonomy to manage their own learning than to give them the freedom (and responsibility) of choosing how they go about it?

Encourage goal-focused learning — Is there a better way of helping students to engage in deep learning than providing them with a complex challenge which requires them to acquire and apply knowledge creatively rather than just regurgitate it in a conventional assessment?

These are the fundamental kinds of questions that we explore in a new optional module in the University of London’s Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. In its introductory section, the module (Strategic Approaches to Careers & Employability in Higher Education) encourages participants to discuss the extent to which enhancing graduate employability is a core function of university education. 

Follow this discussion on LinkedIn and share your thoughts about the role of universities in preparing students for unpredictable future.