Why higher education is failing businesses (and what needs to be done about it)

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Apr 20, 2022

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

So says James Caan CBE – the entrepreneur and former star of the UK equivalent to Shark Tank, Dragons’ Den.

Here he writes exclusively for TLNT:

The more I think about it, the more I have to conclude that universities are increasingly unable to generate the skills the world desperately needs. And that creates big problems for employers too.

The education we still use today was created to prepare graduates for jobs in the pre-internet and pre-automation age. Workplaces are changing at an exponential rate, and it’s clear to me that the education system is failing to keep up.

Nowadays, even students themselves have little faith that attending university will adequately prepare them for work. US research reveals that graduates from 2019 actually delayed their entry into the job market, while 62% said they planned to take jobs in an entirely different sector to what they studied for. Additionally, only 11% of business leaders believe graduates are well equipped for the workforce. Only 14 per cent of Americans strongly believe the opposite.

Too many dumbed-down courses

Part of the problem has been the proliferation of an ever-expanding selection of dumbed-down, useless, and expensive courses.

As such we now have a workplace oversaturated with students who can analyse the cultural significance of a Netflix show, but virtually none who can program a neural network into an AI app. AI is one of the industries that promises 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.

My further worry though is that 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 demand.

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.

By contrast, economic giants such as the US stand to lose $1 trillion by 2030, with the most significant decline being 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. Meanwhile, more traditional nine-to-five jobs in industries such as medicine and engineering are still over saturated with graduates that are not properly equipped to enter the job market.

Businesses want skills that meet their needs

So what’s my message? I believe creating courses that actually reflect current and future societal needs should be prioritized.

Universities should focus on their civic duty, by supporting the economy and preparing society for the future we are heading towards. 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. Governments meanwhile should further invest in institutions that foster skills development and provide students with a wide range of transferable skills to encourage their flexibility.

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

My basic requirement is for a system that prioritizes 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.