top of page

Universities and the Global Skills Agenda

Universities need to adapt to changing patterns of work

Universities and further education colleges, from both public and private sectors, make the central contribution to developing and providing the wide range of skills which are essential to meeting the needs of our global economy and societies.

And while there is room for discussion about the best contribution every institution is able to make there should be no disagreement about the need for all to work together more effectively than is now the case in order to promote the skills and capacities of all parts of the population of the world.

Skills are provided in an enormous range of institutional forms, courses, modes of study and qualification. But every establishment faces the same challenge, which is how to adjust what they offer, and how they offer it, to the reality of exceptionally rapid change in every aspect of what they do. That is the real-world context which we all face.

There are many descriptions of the kind of economic and societal change which individuals and communities face as we live our daily lives.

This summary by Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, is typical:

"The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres…

The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing."

It should be obvious that universities and colleges need to be educating and training people for the 4th industrial revolution and not the 1st.

Across the world they have the duty to understand, interpret and prepare for a world in which such change is taking place. And indeed they are better placed to do that well than any other institution or organisation.

Nowhere is the dramatic impact of such change more evident than in the world of work. The nature of the production process has changed dramatically and continues to do so, for example in the decline of massive production plants, each employing thousands of people, and the rise of automation for more routine tasks together with far more complex networking relationships.

The working population has changed dramatically as women have joined the labour market. People live and work longer as ‘retirement’ retreats further into the future. Most countries of the world continue to experience a major shift away from agriculture and, thank goodness, child labour is increasingly challenged and curbed.

More and more jobs require the ability to use technology effectively, from the simple laptop computer or phone to highly complex systems of production.

The challenges of these changes are deep and wide-ranging. They are philosophical and ethical, as well as technical, as the nature of work, and its dominant place in our society, changes.

And changing employment patterns simultaneously pose important questions about individuals’ incomes, almost all of which derive from work. So as work changes and income changes new means of financial self-sufficiency and sustainability need to be established - and so society changes.

This process of change has an enormous impact upon the kinds of skills and knowledge which are important for the future and so for the ways in which universities and colleges have to operate. This should provoke a fundamental re-assessment of the relationship between universities, colleges and employers.

Working together we all need to address the facts that:

  • ‘Careers for life’ are in steep decline. That requires enormously increased flexibility in courses and modes of teaching. The traditional single point of entry to higher education, at around the age of 18, has been replaced by a number of new entry points to learning;

  • Most areas of employment demand a different pattern of skills, including higher levels of expertise and a wider variety of technology and communication skills which all need perpetual updating throughout working life. Most people need a variety of technology and communication skills much wider than ‘Maths, English and Science’. And our education has to develop the particular attributes of creativity, mental flexibility, sociability and imagination which distinguish human capacities from those of machines. These problems are particularly acute in the very narrow English system of 16-18 study;

  • Professional and technical skills which used to need little updating during a working life are now changing very rapidly, partly but not only due to technological change, so workers need to update their competence;

  • The balance between ‘employment’ and ‘self-employment’ is changing. Individual attitudes need to be entrepreneurial with stronger networking skills as the ‘gig economy’ develops;

  • A far greater number of jobs require higher level technical and analytical expertise which often makes the distinction between ’further’ and ‘higher’ education otiose and even archaic;

  • Workers for almost any organisation can and do come from throughout the world, via ‘outsourcing’ and other means. The world offers a potential workforce and the supply of education is now fundamentally international, not national, in nature.

None of these facts can be addressed without working far more closely with employers of all kinds. And so we need better structures of partnership between universities and colleges of further education and their local societies and economies.

In the UK a natural vehicle for such partnership is the network of Sector Skills Councils, of which there are now 21 which cover approximately 90% of the UK workforce and work with over 550,000 employers. These were established from 2001 onwards and provide the sectoral reach which could help universities and colleges to address skills needs within and across sectors and to develop innovative solutions. In many localities they can be supplemented by Local Enterprise Partnerships.

Two particular changes of practice are important:

Improving students’ preparation for work

These are the need to re-examine courses from the point of view of potential employment and the need to improve students’ preparation for work in general. And that needs to happen in an increasingly internationalised employment world in which skills are transferable across the planet.

Of course many university and college courses already include a strong work component. So-called ‘sandwich courses’, ‘foundation degrees’ and ‘degree apprenticeships’ are intended to emphasise the relationship with work and to give employers a direct stake. But this approach needs to be more widespread. Universities in particular should explicitly acknowledge their key role in equipping students for modern work and to accept that they can and should be contributing to the Global Skills Agenda.

This should be straightforward since the vocational element of university education is an absolutely central part of universities today, as it has been throughout their history. A huge amount of technical and professional education already takes place in universities.

But the argument needs to be made since in some places, some not so far from government, the view is gaining traction that the true function of modern universities is “academic” rather than “vocational”. This in turn suggests that universities can contribute only marginally to ‘apprenticeships’ and education in the skills which the economy needs.

Some go on to argue that universities are not the right place to educate professionals in some areas, for example nursing or primary education. It is suggested that this should be done predominantly in the workplace.

The corollary of this view is that the ‘ivory tower’ model of university academic isolation should be protected. However it is far preferable that that universities should have as porous a boundary as possible with the wider community and the outside working world. Such porosity cannot be taken for granted – some universities find it challenging to develop partnership with industry partners and other key institutional stakeholders and others don’t even try.

Continuing education throughout life

A further challenge is that university education has developed very strongly on a “front-loaded” model with about 90% of students aged between 18 and 24. But graduates today need to continue their education throughout life.

So this history and context poses four significant challenges for universities: the form and mode of courses, the nature of Continuous Professional Development (CPD), the development of appropriate flexibility and agreeing professional and vocational accreditation.

The time for this type of change is very much ripe, even more so as a result of universities’ experience of COVID-19. Government should urgently establish a comprehensive qualifications framework for post-school education and training.

Such a national framework of accreditation and transferability is particularly important. A great deal depends on our capacity to design a system of qualifications which fits both the needs of universities and colleges and the needs of employers in particular sectors. This needs to be done at least at the level of national government and probably internationally, for example in the European Union.

The current complicated cats cradle of course qualifications and accreditations needs to be made far simpler and easier to navigate both for the potential student and for the employer.

And there also needs to be a better system of benchmark testing for admission to courses. This would have important pedagogical benefits especially if viable alternatives could be found to the current final highly academic school performance tariff.

There is a range of possible solutions to these challenges, all of which are already being carried out by some universities but are not at all widespread.

Such a comprehensive and coherent national system of accreditation would have major benefits including:

  • Establishing a benchmarking system to assess the potential of students to benefit from vocational study later in life;

  • Developing courses and qualifications in close collaboration with the relevant employment and professional bodies;

  • Fostering, in general, strong relationships between universities and employers, both local and national, in their fields.

  • Enabling and assisting interaction between study at different educational institutions;

  • Establishing and enabling greater flexibility by universities and colleges;

  • Awarding microcredits which allow accumulation to a Masters degree accreditation whilst still in the workforce;

  • Offering a “skills and professional update”, with a variety of different modes of study, to last throughout life;

  • Offering a wide range of postgraduate degree packages, again with a variety of different course structures and modes, to allow graduates to develop particular professional specialisms;

  • Many of these benefits will probably be mainly through part-time, work-related and on-line education, and will be available throughout life.

Universities and colleges will have to be far more flexible than they are now, which will be easier if the courses are themselves more valuable to both potential students and employers. Business and industrial partners should be able to agree with universities to co-design and fully accredit their own in-house education and training.

A final, enormous, element of these changes is the need for universities to prepare their students for the international dimension. They should develop stronger international components of their courses, at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, including education in languages and cultures. It will be increasingly important for ambitious students to graduate from a university that has a “global brand”.

So universities and colleges have to address an increasingly difficult and significant process of change. Some are already facing up to these now, at least to some extent. But most are not.

Universities have themselves to change substantially in order to meet the very rapidly changing nature of work in the modern world.

That’s the challenge and their success or otherwise will be exceptionally important for all of us.

Rt Hon Charles Clarke, former Secretary of State for Education and Skills and Prof. Ed Byrne is Principal of Kings College London.

They are co-authors of The University Challenge – Changing Universities in a Changing World

Recent Posts

See All

Industry and Regulators Committee

Witness(es): The Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, Former Minister of State for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, Department for Education; The Rt Hon Charles Clarke, Former Education Secretary, De


Couldn’t Load Comments
It looks like there was a technical problem. Try reconnecting or refreshing the page.
bottom of page