Universities are failing graduates, and the economy

James Caan CBE says universities need a total overhaul

Higher education is supposed to provide society with a reliable workforce. Today, it is failing to fulfil that basic function.

From the global AI skills gap to the manufacturing brain drain crippling semiconductor production in the US, universities are increasingly unable to generate the skills the world desperately needs.

Instead of offering an ever-expanding selection of dumbed-down, useless, and expensive courses, universities should focus on their civic duty; supporting the economy and preparing society for the future we are heading towards.

The world and the workplace are changing exponentially, and it’s clear that the education system is failing to keep up. In the United Kingdom, GCSEs, A-levels, and university curricula date back more than half a century, which results in a disconnect between the theoretical curriculum and its practical application to the modern workplace.

For context, A levels were established in 1951, the same year the first videotape recorder was created. These older education systems were created to prepare graduates for the job sector back then, in the pre-internet and pre-automation age. Nowadays, students themselves have little faith that attending university will adequately prepare them for work.

Within the United States, research revealed that graduates from 2019 delayed their entry into the job market, with 62% planning to take jobs in a different sector because their chosen ones were saturated. Additionally, only 11% of business leaders believe that graduates are well equipped for the workforce, whereas only 14% of Americans strongly believe the opposite.

Similarly, research shows a disconnect in what employers are looking for in graduates versus what is taught in higher education institutions. While universities focus on providing practical and vocational skills, employers seem to emphasise soft skills such as interpersonal skills, personal values, ethics, and more generic skills.

Today, we have a workplace oversaturated with students who can analyse the cultural significance of a Netflix show, but virtually none who can programme a neural network into an AI app. AI is one of the industries that promise to transform industries worldwide. However, one survey revealed that whilst 93% of UK and US businesses consider AI to be a business priority, more than half (51%) admit they don’t have the right mix of AI skills in-house.

Equally, the semiconductor shortage in the US is damaging America’s competitiveness and hampering growth. Beyond supply chain and raw material issues, an acute labour shortage threatens to block semiconductor production well into 2022. Sixty-seven per cent of North American manufacturing companies and 63% of European companies claim that an inability to recruit staff is hampering production.

The disconnect being created by higher education will only widen as technology races forward and lecturers struggle to catch up. In essence, universities must take the initiative to enable graduates with practical and technical skills that respond directly to employer demands.

Countries thrive and succeed based on the way they educate their people. Singapore is a prime example; the country has an education system ranked among the top 20 in the world, with a curriculum focused on more practical and in-demand subjects.

Economic giants such as the US stand to lose $1 trillion by 2030, with the significant decline in manufacturing skills. This talent gap will likely result in a brain drain because a new generation of workers may be unwilling and potentially not skilled enough to take over, despite the industry’s significant contribution to the economy. Although, the more traditional 9 to 5 jobs in industries such as medicine and engineering are still over-saturated with graduates that are not properly equipped to enter the job market.

Creating courses that actually reflect current and future societal needs should be prioritised. Governments should further invest in institutions fostering skills development and providing students with a wide range of transferable skills to encourage their flexibility.

Giving tax breaks to universities that implement better methods of producing skilled graduates could also encourage their co-operation.

Higher Education Institutions should also focus more on ‘soft skills’ and industries such as tech, cyber-security and other non-traditional jobs that we are increasingly relying upon. As industries change, Deloitte notes that these skills will remain evergreen into the next century.

In collaboration with companies, a combination of theory and practice that includes apprenticeships and internships during the course of their studies could bring fundamental change in education systems.

In essence, universities would take on the responsibility of not only educating but training students as well. It is not just memory and research skills that should characterise education. Instead, universities should teach students to ‘learn how to learn’ and foster those soft and hard skills relevant to society today, not the skills society needed half a century ago.

The basic requirement is for a system that prioritises student outcomes – during and after their studies – and further ensures their job security in society. A better education system that produces employable graduates will lead to a more sustainable economy. The strength of our economies rests on the strength of our education system. Under the current status quo, we can expect the government balance sheet to remain firmly in the red.

James Caan CBE is an entrepreneur and former Dragon.

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