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As part of an OECD Forum series, the virtual event The School-to-Work Transition will take place from 1430–1600 CET on 8 February 2023. Register your place now!
From the lens of a University Vice Rector/Principal for Students, and as a Professor of Economics, nowhere brings my two worlds together more succinctly than the transition from education to employment, whether from school or university.
As a Vice Principal, I spend a lot of my time working alongside our students to understand their motivations and drivers, and their concerns. What surprises the economist inside me from those conversations is that students do not see education as a golden ticket for life and career, despite the volumes of research that says it remains the best investment you can ever make.
But while that missing golden ticket worries them, it also prompts students to push us as providers to consider what more we can and should do.
We are increasingly seeing thoughts on the need to equip for the long term, for the ongoing and accelerated dynamism of the labour market.
For a long time, this had been a debate anchored in government perspectives of a “skills agenda”; however, this can make it reductionist and focused on very immediate goals. It is about the job market now. About reskilling now. About skills shortages now. All of these are hugely important issues, and draw the minds of many in education together including across the traditional boundaries of universities and colleges, apprenticeship structures etc. And it is totally understandable as we emerge from a pandemic period and perturbances in the labour market.
But increasingly we are seeing thoughts on the need to equip for the long term, for the ongoing and accelerated dynamism of the labour market. That requires as strong a focus on self-awareness, learning to learn and career management skills as it does on digital literacy and active citizenship, experiential learning and the ability to bend and flex with what the world will throw at our students.
Experiential learning is not new—internships have been part of many programmes at universities. The issue now is about going further and doing better in experiential learning.
On digital, there’s a challenge for young people to identify appropriate digital (and data) skills. Part of that will be the ongoing exposure to the modern lingua franca of coding as many institutions promote. However, many students point out to us that their young siblings are coding in elementary school—making our efforts redundant in a short period—and these same students can figure out coding themselves if they want or need to. What they do not know is data ethics and literacy: understanding the complexity of the world where data is harvested constantly and used (and abused) in all dimensions of life. This feels like a gap we need to step into, to help assuage student fears of this unknown. That said, the talk about them being digital natives can lead to the basics being under-played—our students have arrived literate, but that doesn’t mean we had nothing to teach them about writing. They need to be digitally self-aware.
More on the Forum Network: Staying One Step Ahead of Innovation: How to future-proof education for the digital economy by Margareta Mucibabici, Public Affairs & Social Impact Director, UiPath
As exciting is the emergence of thinking around the experiential dimensions of the university experience, including around co-created content. Experiential learning is not new—internships have been part of many programmes at universities. The issue now is about going further and doing better in experiential learning. At Edinburgh we have developed, to deep interest from the student body, what we call Student-Led, Individually Created Courses (or SLICCs). These offer a reflective learning and assessment framework for students to gain academic credits for experiential learning, and to develop both personal and professional skills and attributes. The best examples of these initiatives are flexible and can be used at any stage, through to masters-level courses.
For students, these approaches provide a novel way of receiving academic credit, shaping their educational experience, increasing their assessment literacy, honing their professional skills and building their employability. Students who have enrolled in these programmes have used their increased confidence and drive to develop their ideas, sometimes as business ideas: we now have “start-up” companies in our student body numbering in the hundreds each year. But they also speak at conferences, or become more involved in volunteering, advocacy and social action.
Finally, the other great resource that a university has is its alumni. We need to make the maximum use of this incredible community to provide supported access and insights into the widest of opportunities, so students have the confidence to recognise their existing talents and are empowered to take advantage of the myriad ways in which they can continue to develop and prepare for a dynamic future.