“Ensure graduates are set for life, not just for Work
Date Posted:Mon, 5th Dec 2022
"In an unstable political and social climate, MENA’s graduates need soft skills", says Hugh Martin, Registrar and Chief Administrative Office at the British University in Dubai.
November 28, 2022
To coincide with the launch of Times Higher Education’s Arab University Ranking, we’re publishing a series of comment pieces focusing on the Arab world. Browse the THE Arab University Rankings 2022 results.
I spoke at the recent THE Digital Universities MENA summit at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi. Throughout the summit, discussion was about how higher education needs to be “disrupted” by edtech and AI, with lectures, even the traditional university, likely to be consigned to history.
This is pretty standard fare for most of us in university management. We have become used to the attitudes and angles of the corporate world, jostling to wield influence and leverage income from universities. It is not new and it is not particularly disruptive either, because it is based on a false dichotomy between traditional and innovative approaches. And most of the data on workplace needs from outside the sector simply don’t stack up.
The topic my panel discussed was “How will online education upskill and reskill a future workforce?” We were expected to address the suggestion that we should all be embracing a new but as yet undefined methodology in our learning spaces, across our real and virtual campuses. I suspect the implication was that we have got it wrong in higher education but, happily, here was our chance to be directed by industry and other vested interests to produce the kinds of future employees they want.
It was pleasing to find myself, for once, with like-minded educators, rather than digital snake oil salesmen. Instead, we pushed back on what has become an increasingly common habit of passing the blame on to universities for failures of governments and commercial firms to address workforce inadequacies – not to mention the dispiriting trend of knocking experts and ridiculing expertise. Across our short discussion, we shared a common goal to put students back at the heart of what we do – listening to their lived experience of learning and prioritising their voices, needs and concerns over the clamour of the marketplace.
It shouldn’t need saying because it is an obvious truism that since the future workplace is not yet known, its skills needs are still fluid. Students today will occupy roles that don’t yet exist and that we can’t entirely predict. And they will certainly take on several jobs during their working careers, often in very different sectors.
Upskilling and reskilling? These are the wrong focuses for educators. Both concepts are equally inapt and, more importantly, they take our eyes off the ball on which we should be concentrating. It is not the purpose of a university to create “job-ready” graduates; our goal is to help develop “life-ready” graduates. Such graduates should be able to face any challenge the world of work may throw at them, equipped with the soft skills of effective communication, tact and diplomacy, reason, negotiation and critical thinking. And they should be able to do so with an outlook of compassion, inclusion and empathy, rather than a blinkered focus on mere profit and loss or who can turn the biggest buck.
I argue that the current near-obsession with STEM subjects, which is seen in higher education everywhere but is particularly prevalent in the Arab region, is dangerous and counterproductive. More than anything in our unstable political and social climate, our students need those soft skills I’ve mentioned, and these are inculcated by the arts and humanities, not science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“Reskilling” will, of course, be needed in the future. But it is not the responsibility of universities. It is industry that benefits financially from our graduates, so it is industry that should pay for the reskilling of its workforce. And reskilling is an ongoing process. We all accept that lifelong learning is a vital requirement; indeed, universities have been involved in its development and evolution for some time. The question is how much of the burden universities should be expected to carry.
So now really is the moment to rethink the role that universities and other higher education providers play. We are not producers, and our courses are not a production line.
Skills come about all kinds of ways: through formal education, informal extracurricular activities, industry placements, internships, and sometimes the simple process of learning and being in places where knowledge is shared and celebrated.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to “upskill” is to teach employees additional skills; to “reskill” is to teach them new skills. Both are continuing a process already begun. Educators begin that process; life continues it.
Hugh Martin is registrar and chief administrative officer at The British University in Dubai