Universities Aren't Working. Here's How We Fix Them

heavy financial cost.

It is great news that so many young people are choosing to stay in education right now. I firmly believe that an appetite for learning is one of the most desirable attributes in an employee and one of the best predictors of future career success. I am not, however, convinced that attending university is the best way for anybody to realise their full potential. Without wishing to sound negative, despite their illustrious reputation, our universities need to be radically overhauled or we risk creating a generation of expensively educated but poorly skilled people, unprepared for the current or future world of work.

Old and out of touch

A great deal of good work takes place within our universities, but the way in which they operate and are structured militates against them truly providing the education and skills that we need right now.

The current university model dates back almost 1000 years, to Bologna in 1155. Despite the huge changes we have seen in almost every aspect of our society since then, the way they operate has barely altered at all. I am not the first person to observe that universities seem like an archaic solution to the very modern problem of providing relevant and marketable skills and education. They are often referred to as ivory towers for a reason – because they appear out of touch with the wider society, institutions and companies they are supposed to be supporting.

The advent of the fourth industrial revolution has increased scrutiny around the way in which we educate people. For those of us working in technology in particular, there is now an increased sense of urgency around how universities function. Some of us are even asking the heretical question – are universities now even necessary?

Addressing the skills gap

For some time, concerns have been raised around the technology skills gap. In the technology sector it is estimated that there are 17% more job openings than available workers in the market.70% of executives say current employees lack technology and computer skills; and even more concerning, only 11% of business leaders say they're confident that university graduates will be prepared for the world of work beyond education.

I do not believe this is because people are not prepared to work to gain new skills, I think this is because higher education is not currently set up to provide the skills we so badly need right now. For one thing, universities are deliberately focused on educating small numbers of only the most qualified people to become specialists in their chosen field. The current skills gap renders this educational model pretty much obsolete. We need to see the rapid and in-depth acquisition of highly specialised skills, not only among the relatively small number of people who study at university, but in high numbers of the population.

If we are serious about educating greater numbers of people in society, it makes no sense to push more people through a system which is designed to accommodate only a small number of students.

It is also frustrating for those of us in industry that academic institutions are so slow to change their curriculum. This process can typically take years in universities, when outside academia the pace of change is rapid. This disconnect means that a student embarking on a three year course can expect the skills and knowledge acquired in their first and second years to be pretty much redundant by the time they graduate. Graduates then face the prospect of applying for jobs for which their degree has not prepared them, only to have to swiftly learn new skills while on the job. There has to be a better way.

Moving forwards

So, how do we put this right? I believe we need to go to the heart of what a university does and make root and branch reforms. Universities currently have a research arm and an educational arm and there is, unfortunately, considerable friction between the two. Most researchers consider teaching an irksome duty that they have to carry out in order to pay for their research. It is highly unlikely that one person will be good at both research and teaching - they are very different disciplines with different outcomes and motivations. Only by severing the connection between research and teaching will we begin to see better educational outcomes. Universities can be brilliant places for research, but we need new institutions for training people in the skills now required in the workplace.  These institutions will be better connected to industry than universities are at present and will, crucially, have a curriculum that can be responsive to the needs of the world outside.

Talking about a revolution

As the job market radically changes in line with the pace of technological change, so too must the way we train and upskill. Meeting the needs of businesses and the economy as a whole relies on broadening access to higher-level education and promoting diverse routes to study that will appeal to larger numbers of people. Technology has to sit at the very heart of this as it is technology that will make flexible training for all of us possible.

New developments including the MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) phenomenon, offering free, widespread access to high quality learning has huge potential for those looking to increase educational opportunities throughout their lives. MOOCs, online tutorials and bootcamps are fantastic ways to retrain and acquire new skills and also have the huge benefit that their curriculum can change from one week to the next to reflect the needs of businesses and the world at large.

Alongside these structural changes, we also need to create a different mind-set that values education as an ongoing process we engage in throughout our lives, rather than something we do when young which we then forget about. In a world where an estimated 85 per cent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet the only way we can prepare for the future is to be open to new ideas and skills, willing to embrace new challenges throughout our lives. A culture of lifelong learning is badly needed if we are to have people with the skills industry actually needs in order to propel our businesses and country forwards.

Overhauling the way universities operate will not be easy and will not happen overnight, but change is happening at such a fast pace that a complete transformation of higher education is now not merely desirable, it is inevitable. Governments globally need to deal with this right now as the stakes are incredibly high. We run a serious risk of having large numbers of people unable to participate fully in society or find work in the new economy. Rapid and widespread technological advancements now mean that technology is able to replicate human actions.  We have heard for some time that Artificial Intelligence will develop to a point where machines will take over our jobs, precipitating an exponential rise in unemployment. This is now no longer the stuff of science fiction. It is already happening and our university system is simply not able to deal with this new world of work.

We cannot delay in creating a transformed education system and replacing universities with institutions that reflect the world in which we live. Ensuring we are all open to the opportunities created by these new institutions is going to be a new challenge for all of us. I for one cannot wait to see what will happen next.

 

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For many of us, no matter how old we are, September will always be a month that we associate with going back to school. As I write this, there are young people across the U.K. and, indeed, all over the world, getting ready to return to university or embarking on higher education for the first time. It is an exciting time, full of opportunity and burgeoning ambition. I also find it encouraging that the appeal of higher education appears undimmed, despite the often heavy financial cost.

It is great news that so many young people are choosing to stay in education right now. I firmly believe that an appetite for learning is one of the most desirable attributes in an employee and one of the best predictors of future career success. I am not, however, convinced that attending university is the best way for anybody to realise their full potential. Without wishing to sound negative, despite their illustrious reputation, our universities need to be radically overhauled or we risk creating a generation of expensively educated but poorly skilled people, unprepared for the current or future world of work.

Old and out of touch

A great deal of good work takes place within our universities, but the way in which they operate and are structured militates against them truly providing the education and skills that we need right now.

The current university model dates back almost 1000 years, to Bologna in 1155. Despite the huge changes we have seen in almost every aspect of our society since then, the way they operate has barely altered at all. I am not the first person to observe that universities seem like an archaic solution to the very modern problem of providing relevant and marketable skills and education. They are often referred to as ivory towers for a reason – because they appear out of touch with the wider society, institutions and companies they are supposed to be supporting.

The advent of the fourth industrial revolution has increased scrutiny around the way in which we educate people. For those of us working in technology in particular, there is now an increased sense of urgency around how universities function. Some of us are even asking the heretical question – are universities now even necessary?

Addressing the skills gap

For some time, concerns have been raised around the technology skills gap. In the technology sector it is estimated that there are 17% more job openings than available workers in the market.70% of executives say current employees lack technology and computer skills; and even more concerning, only 11% of business leaders say they're confident that university graduates will be prepared for the world of work beyond education.

I do not believe this is because people are not prepared to work to gain new skills, I think this is because higher education is not currently set up to provide the skills we so badly need right now. For one thing, universities are deliberately focused on educating small numbers of only the most qualified people to become specialists in their chosen field. The current skills gap renders this educational model pretty much obsolete. We need to see the rapid and in-depth acquisition of highly specialised skills, not only among the relatively small number of people who study at university, but in high numbers of the population.

If we are serious about educating greater numbers of people in society, it makes no sense to push more people through a system which is designed to accommodate only a small number of students.

It is also frustrating for those of us in industry that academic institutions are so slow to change their curriculum. This process can typically take years in universities, when outside academia the pace of change is rapid. This disconnect means that a student embarking on a three year course can expect the skills and knowledge acquired in their first and second years to be pretty much redundant by the time they graduate. Graduates then face the prospect of applying for jobs for which their degree has not prepared them, only to have to swiftly learn new skills while on the job. There has to be a better way.

Moving forwards

So, how do we put this right? I believe we need to go to the heart of what a university does and make root and branch reforms. Universities currently have a research arm and an educational arm and there is, unfortunately, considerable friction between the two. Most researchers consider teaching an irksome duty that they have to carry out in order to pay for their research. It is highly unlikely that one person will be good at both research and teaching - they are very different disciplines with different outcomes and motivations. Only by severing the connection between research and teaching will we begin to see better educational outcomes. Universities can be brilliant places for research, but we need new institutions for training people in the skills now required in the workplace.  These institutions will be better connected to industry than universities are at present and will, crucially, have a curriculum that can be responsive to the needs of the world outside.

Talking about a revolution

As the job market radically changes in line with the pace of technological change, so too must the way we train and upskill. Meeting the needs of businesses and the economy as a whole relies on broadening access to higher-level education and promoting diverse routes to study that will appeal to larger numbers of people. Technology has to sit at the very heart of this as it is technology that will make flexible training for all of us possible.

New developments including the MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) phenomenon, offering free, widespread access to high quality learning has huge potential for those looking to increase educational opportunities throughout their lives. MOOCs, online tutorials and bootcamps are fantastic ways to retrain and acquire new skills and also have the huge benefit that their curriculum can change from one week to the next to reflect the needs of businesses and the world at large.

Alongside these structural changes, we also need to create a different mind-set that values education as an ongoing process we engage in throughout our lives, rather than something we do when young which we then forget about. In a world where an estimated 85 per cent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet the only way we can prepare for the future is to be open to new ideas and skills, willing to embrace new challenges throughout our lives. A culture of lifelong learning is badly needed if we are to have people with the skills industry actually needs in order to propel our businesses and country forwards.

Overhauling the way universities operate will not be easy and will not happen overnight, but change is happening at such a fast pace that a complete transformation of higher education is now not merely desirable, it is inevitable. Governments globally need to deal with this right now as the stakes are incredibly high. We run a serious risk of having large numbers of people unable to participate fully in society or find work in the new economy. Rapid and widespread technological advancements now mean that technology is able to replicate human actions.  We have heard for some time that Artificial Intelligence will develop to a point where machines will take over our jobs, precipitating an exponential rise in unemployment. This is now no longer the stuff of science fiction. It is already happening and our university system is simply not able to deal with this new world of work.

We cannot delay in creating a transformed education system and replacing universities with institutions that reflect the world in which we live. Ensuring we are all open to the opportunities created by these new institutions is going to be a new challenge for all of us. I for one cannot wait to see what will happen next.

 

I am an astrophysicist, MBA, entrepreneur and CEO of Europe's largest data science hub, Pivigo. Pivigo accelerates innovation with data in organisations, by connecting

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