November, 02 2023

Here’s how we can make higher education more relevant

There is a need to close the gap between content and skills to counter employers’ concerns that many of the graduates they hire are ill-equipped to join the workforce

Arabian-Business

There is a need to close the gap between content and skills to counter employers’ concerns that many of the graduates they hire are ill-equipped to join the workforce.

The world of higher education today faces some herculean challenges as technology and AI have challenged traditional ideas of the job market. The traditional concepts of imparting knowledge are no longer as relevant and educational institutions the world over need to develop innovative curricula and new courses demanded by a disrupted job market. There is widespread criticism that many university graduates do not have the skill sets needed in today’s market.

A 2020 World Economic Forum (WEF) study painted a gloomy picture of the job market. The study reported that many existing job categories will soon be extinct, but in turn new jobs will be created along the way. The key takeaway from the study is that the new roles will require greater integration with machines and technology, leading to an increased demand for cross-disciplinary skills, such as critical thinking, problem-solving and self-management.

The onus is on education policymakers and educational institutions to tailor new innovative programmes to a changing job market. It is a challenge that many higher education institutions are struggling with.

It is a complex situation. During my long experience as an executive academic leader and faculty member, spanning a wide range of institutions, I have been engaged in helping tackle evolving changes in the education sphere. Here I would like to list some key areas that I feel need to be addressed to make higher education more relevant and tuned to today’s market needs.

Link learning to employability through curriculum redesign

It is a daunting task for universities to keep up with today’s disruptive developments. However, they seriously need to consider an overhaul of the system, because the student community expects not only value for money, but an education that will provide employment and financial security.

There is a need to close the gap between content and skills to counter employers’ concerns that many of the graduates they hire are ill-equipped to join the workforce. This can be achieved by enriching a university degree through the infusion of soft skills.

Of course, a regular review and sometimes overhaul of some programmes has acquired paramount importance. However, the overarching approach is to train students in critical thinking and problem-solving skills that they need to contribute fully to employment and society. The skills that figure high in most studies are Analytical skills, Teamwork and Interpersonal skills, Self-development, Self-management and Communication skills.

Universities therefore need to work with employers and other stakeholders to strengthen links with the wider communities to gain a deeper understanding of key skills gaps.

Invest more in digital infrastructure

Increased investment in digital infrastructure holds the key to raising the standards in higher education and helping to enhance student experiences. Universities need to provide a seamless experience to all users through digital support, such as websites, mobile apps, portals, course registration platforms, intranet, and microsites.

Beyond the visible systems, there is an overarching digital infrastructure that supports university operations, enabling smarter education. This type of digital infrastructure is typically invisible to users but crucial to bringing together the infrastructure that elevates the student experience.

A digital vision is essential to implement long-term infrastructure in universities. In the end, all universities require secure and scalable systems to adapt to the ever-changing education landscape and operate on the same platform rather than in silos.

Leverage technology, i.e. AI tools, to enhance learning

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) are impacting every sphere of activity today, more so upon the field of education. Tools like ChatGPT and several newer AI writers are dramatically disrupting the academic world in particular, and my conclusion is that it is best to embrace these tools and integrate them into teaching policies and practices.

The threat to academic integrity needs to be handled by institutions individually through specific do’s and don’ts. These tools should be used for students’ benefit under faculty supervision and through changes in assignments and assessments in educational settings.

Technology today initiates unprecedented benefits and solutions. Universities need to invest more in areas like Cloud computing (to create, manage, and access information on one platform); visualised analytics (to derive deep insights into student preferences, faculty experiences, digital trends, and business activities), AI (to empower universities to interpret and manipulate data) and Big Data analytics.

Build a strong nexus between academics and industry

As the academic world cannot change the job market, the challenge lies in using the experience of industry players to mold educational programmes. This calls for stronger and ongoing interaction between academics and industry.

Each university or tertiary institution could perhaps have an industry advisory committee in each tertiary education institution to suggest changes to the curriculum and align it more closely to the needs of the market.

Students should also be encouraged to interact with private industry through short-term projects and internship programmes that will enable them to get the feel of the workplace.

Invest in technologies that support sustainability

In a world searching for solutions to the challenges of climate change, the contribution of every individual is essential in mitigating the past practices. It is, therefore, vital that university students support sustainability.

Sustainability basically refers to a community vision that calls attention to how personal actions and community practices affect the natural world. On campus, sustainability entails everything from learning about living in a community to the people you meet to the clubs you join to sustainable efforts. These all create the centre of what living in a campus environment means.

The easiest and most common way that people participate in sustainability is by recycling. Students should be encouraged to engage in recycling projects, bike rental programmes, and composting programmes, reducing use of disposable items, and minimising the use of notebooks, textbooks, folders and paper handouts.

Take steps to anticipate and address mental health issues on campus

The mental health crisis on college campuses is a growing concern that demands close attention. Mental health is a key component of overall well-being and plays a crucial role in academic success, personal development, and quality of life. Moreover, college students are at a stage where they are forming habits and attitudes that will shape their future mental health.

Ignoring crises on college campuses can have serious repercussions, not just for the students themselves, but also for the wider society. It is therefore essential to understand the scope of the problem, identify the contributing factors, and explore effective strategies to address this crisis.

Common mental health issues among college students include eating disorders,

anxiety disorders and depression. These conditions can significantly impair a student’s ability to function, affecting their academic performance, social relationships, and overall quality of life.

Promote a research mentality that addresses practical issues

Research forms a core component of universities. Intensive research projects of some universities are an ongoing activity that elevates the role of a university and reflects the calibre of its faculty and students. On the other hand, we need to engage students in smaller and socially relevant projects that revolve around the community. This will help them relate learning to real everyday life.

One example is a project undertaken at my university which launched a pilot experiential learning project by engaging architecture students in documenting dilapidated historic houses in the Old Town area of Ras Al Khaimah. The students took pictures of all the houses’ components, and converted the data and documentation into technical drawings, which can be used by the authorities for restoration works.

Inculcate entrepreneurial and innovative skills across the curriculum

We all know that the 21st century belongs to innovators and creative minds. So, developing a skillset that helps students in innovating and solving real-life problems is important. By looking through the eyes of an entrepreneur, a person can involve him/herself in sustainable development.

Studying entrepreneurship can help students learn about core business areas such as finance, sales, marketing management and accounting, not to mention skills such as adaptability, effective communication and confidence.

This is the age of innovation. Students must be taught to nurture ideas and grow them into projects, which perhaps someday turn into innovations and startups. This is all the more important because with job insecurity increasing, students can bank on these skills to set up their own enterprises.

Make Learning Engaging

The easy availability of technology tools provides us the luxury of making learning more engaging. There are hundreds of tools that instructors can leverage in their classes.

An excellent way to increase engagement is by provoking conversations and challenging students. Education technology tools like a learning management system (LMS) enable instructors to easily set up, monitor and even grade discussion forums.

It is as well beneficial to use social media platforms that can serve as valuable channels for conversation and learning. Classmates can use these services to plan group work, ask questions of one another, collaborate on projects and even organise extra-curricular activities.

It is also important to validate and celebrate accomplishments. Activities like watching and responding to a TED Talk or linking to a relevant news article can help students connect their learning to real issues and problems. The more involved an instructor becomes in the online activities of students, the more these students will feel validated for the learning they are demonstrating.


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