Universities will need to focus much more on the successful exit of their students if they are to prove their relevance to employers in the next decade, a webinar on ‘Employability in the Digital Age’ heard.
The online discussion on 28 October was hosted by University World News in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation as part of its Transformative Leadership series and brought together experts from new and traditional higher education providers, the tech industry and the International Finance Corporation to discuss key employability skills in the digital age and how higher education must adapt to meet those needs.
The debate was moderated by University World News Managing Editor Brendan O’Malley, who commended the Mastercard Foundation for its strong interest in the employability of graduates through its scholarship programme with education partners, which is helping thousands of students from disadvantaged and marginalised communities in Africa.
The webinar opened with a clear call to make ‘soft skills’ rather than ‘digital skills’ the priority for graduates entering the world of work, despite the technological transformation of both higher education and employment.
“Employers tell us having soft skills makes our students stand out,” said Nathalie Munyampenda, CEO of Kepler, who told the webinar that 90% of their graduates were in employment within six months.
That is an impressive feat, as Kepler is a non-governmental organisation, which has worked in Rwanda with Southern New Hampshire University in the United States to provide students in East Africa with access to accredited American qualifications through its innovative competency-based online degree since 2013.
It is also a remarkable achievement as 25% of Kepler students are refugees, many of whom had never touched a computer before taking part in a foundation programme to bring their digital competency level up to what is required to study online.
Munyampenda said Kepler had “demonstrated that, if you provide the right assistance when they apply and get in, especially to women, and follow this model and provide employability skills right from the time they walk in” until they graduate, and provide wrap-around support for everyone, 90% or more of the students can get jobs within six months.
“It is not something that just happens. We chase every job and are constantly thinking how we can improve,” she said.
Be ‘well-rounded’ to succeed
Alejandro Caballero, a principal education specialist with the US-based International Finance Corporation, who has worked with its sister organisation, the World Bank, with governments and universities in Latin America and the Caribbean, echoed Munyampenda’s message that it will be “well-rounded individuals that will succeed in the future”.
He said: “Yes, there is going to be a greater role for technology and AI [artificial intelligence] and machine-blended learning and a number of other technologies; we need analytical skills for sure, but we also need interpersonal skills in the new world of work.
“Even if we go into an AI-enabled world, we are going to need to interact more and more as human beings to be able to interact with machines.”
A poll carried out at the start of the webinar backed up this point, with nearly 80% of the audience participating saying soft skills, such as adaptability, critical thinking and problem-solving, would be the skills most needed by employers by 2030.
But how can governments and higher education develop equitable access to employability skills learning for the digital age and isn’t the switch to digital learning because of COVID-19 exacerbating inequalities?
Caballero said it was clear there was not a level playing field in many institutions in developing countries with “more affluent students able to leverage their networks and personal and family connections” to get jobs, while most students were “left to navigate the world of work on their own with limited support from their universities”.
Underfunded careers offices
Careers offices are significantly understaffed, particularly in emerging markets, from Latin America to Africa, to Asia and the Middle East, he said.
Digitalising some of the current services was part of the solution, but investment and adequate staffing was “critical to create a level playing field and equity of exit as well”.
Caballero added: “We want to make employability something at the centre of the mission and strategy of an institution, with adequate budgets to effectively build up careers services and to tap into alumni networks so that every person has equal access to labour market opportunities.
It was at this point in the debate that one webinar participant remarked in the chat box that she had seen research by i-graduate to show many university marketing budgets were five times higher than budgets for careers-related services.
Caballero said that, as well as investing more in careers offices, there should be more convergence with private-sector providers and the human resources and recruitment world.
“Universities need to re-organise so there is a bigger role for these central departments to make sure they can provide the services needed,” he said, pointing to what has been achieved by Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico.
The private institution’s Model Tec21 initiative says it allows students to “develop solid and integral competences which will help you solve present and future challenges in a strategical and creative way”.
Caballero said the leading Latin American university allows industrial engineering students to work across “more generalist tracks”, particularly in the early years of their undergraduate experience, something along the lines of the US liberal arts experience.
Students also work in real time with corporate partners, although the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted some of these approaches.
“I think what they have done will be relevant as higher education develops in emerging markets in the coming years,” said Caballero.
Sean Gallagher, the Boston-based founder and executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy in the US and executive professor of educational policy, said his university had framed its model around experiential learning for the past 110 years.
He predicted greater “integration of learning” from the professional education world and industry and pointed to what IBM has achieved with its digital badges and Google with its certificates with Coursera.
“We are seeing these industry-based certificates and credentials being woven into the post-secondary institutional curriculum; and in certain cases, where the quality can be recognised, into a formal post-secondary education credential.”
He predicted much more convergence and overlap in the next 10 years, especially for “in-demand technology-related competencies” with top universities getting together with the likes of YouTube.
Gallagher told the webinar that “edtech firms are part of the answer” to helping students gain the skills needed to help graduates get jobs as employers weigh up formal education and experience among new potential recruits.
Are students adaptable?
“What they want to know is can someone perform this job, but also are they trainable, can they master something, are they adaptable?” he said.
Gallagher, who worked for nearly 10 years at Eduventures, advising executives at hundreds of universities, education companies and investors before joining Northeastern, is an expert on adapting higher education programmes and credentials to meet future employability demands. He is also author of The Future of University Credentials.
He urged universities to refine ways to “become the assessors of experiential learning”, including prior-learning, and to do much more to develop fluid approaches to higher education.
He said that, while non-accredited learning could be useful to individuals, most people will still want a diploma or some kind of certificate from a respected institution and so there was great potential for universities.
But, instead of a pipeline system, which tends to be “very exclusionary”, and means if a person misses one moment in their life progression or their career progression they are left behind, Gallagher wants higher education to open up and “capture a lot of learning that happens in other places”.
Take control of your lifelong learning
Munyampenda said a key role for higher education was getting people “to take control of their lifelong learning” and while Kepler talks to companies all the time, there was a big need to explain to employers the kinds of skills they will probably need in the future.
“We get companies coming to us and saying they want to hire a computer scientist. And we say OK, and they come back to us and say: ‘We don’t know what to do with these people’.
“So, it is important to help employers understand what skills they need for the future, too,” she said.
In closing the webinar, O’Malley said it was clear that employers would need more soft skills in the future and added: “Equity on exit as well as access was a key message from the discussion as well as making employability a key part of university missions and monitoring and tracking the outcomes.”
A total of 1,350 registered for the webinar and more than 500 people participated in the discussion, with the audience breakdown being 9% students, 53% academics, 23% from business and the rest from other sources.
Nic Mitchell is a journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities communication network, EUPRIO, and on his website. He provides English-language communication support on a freelance basis for European universities and specialist higher education media.