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How Can Universities Prepare Students for the Future of Work?

10 Mar Rebecca Low 0 Blog

According to a recent study by online learning platform Chegg, employment prospects and the future of work are still a significant factor in students’ decision to go to university. Across the 21 countries surveyed, 21% of students said that their chosen career path required a degree. 19% said they thought undertaking higher education would improve their job prospects. 14% hoped it would lead to greater earning potential.

It remains the case that, on average, graduates are more likely to hold higher-paid positions in the workplace. However, we also know that for millennial graduates and their Gen Z counterparts, earning potential is not the sole driver behind their choice of degree programme. Flexibility, environmental impact and a focus on equality are all as important for the younger generation – and increasingly for so-called mature students too. So, what steps can universities take to ensure that they continue to support their graduates as they move from learning to earning in an ever-evolving employment landscape?

Focus on soft skills

The idea that employers should focus on developing so-called soft skills is gaining traction in the workplace. Workplaces are able to quickly plug any technical skills gaps through hiring or internal training. However, there is an increasing need for employees to demonstrate complex problem-solving skills, strong communication, great teamwork and leadership too. These behavioural skills take much longer to hone, but universities can support their students’ development long before they step into the workplace.

There are numerous opportunities for students to improves their collaborative and team work skills in a university setting. Whether through group projects, study groups or bodies like student councils, students are able to mix and work alongside and learn from their peers. Working digitally affords even greater opportunity for students to work with a diverse range of people, with the ability to meet and collaborate virtually with other classes and even campuses around the world.

An entrepreneurial mindset can also be developed in the higher education environment. With students undertaking DBA programmes working towards becoming experts in their area of study, they are required to continually expand their own knowledge, understanding and network of contacts, as well as being closely supported by a member of academic staff. This ability to work in a self-directed way, with a view to supporting personal and professional development, is a skill that will serve students well in the modern workplace.

Learning from the pandemic

As with businesses and organisations around the world, universities had to adapt swiftly to COVID-19 restrictions and national lockdowns. Closing campuses meant that the gradual shift towards greater online learning accelerated on a scale that few could have predicted.

Generally speaking, universities seem to have made this move fairly successfully. 86% students said that their university provided online teaching and resources in place of face-to-face learning. Of these, half rated this online provision as good to excellent. 35% said they learned as much, if not more, through online study as they would have in person.

Distance and digital learning also offers greater scope for flexible study, with pay-as-you-learn models becoming increasingly popular. Flexible study allows students to manage their own time; students can learn to prioritise without the traditional structure of synchronous learning. With the move away from an office-based work culture, getting used to this way of working as students may serve graduates well once they join the future workforce.

Real work experience

Even before the events of 2020, the learning-to-earning pipeline was changing. In the decade following the global financial crisis, we have seen the jobs market become increasingly. Many more students have chosen post-graduate study rather than immediate employment. Graduates with Masters degree are highly valuable to employers. Post-graduate students are in demand thanks to their in-depth knowledge of particular areas, but work experience is still important.

While ‘employability’ isn’t a one-size-fits-all skill that can be ‘taught’, universities can support students to translate their academic knowledge in skills for the workplace. Seminars with CEOs and successful founders are valuable,  but ensuring students have access to practical opportunities is crucial. Building courses in tandem with businesses can provide students with practical work experience; it’s also a way for students to begin building a network of professional contacts. Some universities have connections with their local business sector. One example is Liverpool John Moores University, whose in-house student recruitment service links directly to Liverpool City Region businesses.

As well as providing online resources for study, universities can also use the digital space to offer practical career support. At UBIS, we provide our students with access to JobTeaser. JobTeaser is a portal to the working world, allowing our students to access job listings, internship opportunities and practical advice to prepare for their first steps into employment.

Leaders in the future of work

In recent years, we have continued to see a decline in the number of ‘jobs for life’. The future of work will demand greater innovation, flexibility and a diverse skillset. Universities can influence the evolution of career pathways, whether or not their students have chosen a vocational degree programme.

There are opportunities for educational organisations to lead the way in preparing the students for the future of work; from individual skills development and training, to broadening students’ professional networks and providing important practical work experiences. Universities can learn from the last year and move to align with the values of this generation of students. Then they can cement their status as centres of not only academic excellence, but also as institutions that nurture an ambitious, well-rounded and highly skilled future workforce.