With the 21st century’s rapid technological advances and the increasing focus on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), many UK universities prioritise developing students’ technological skills.
However, a recent analysis conducted by some of the UK’s leading employers and university directors, suggested a different attitude ought to be adopted. In February, HSBC sponsored a roundtable discussion event in Birmingham where senior academic leaders, employers and policy-makers gathered to bridge the gap between what employers look for and what universities teach.
Despite the trend of global reliance on technology, the result of discussions places priority on creative skills. Kathy Armour, pro vice-chancellor at the University of Birmingham, pointed out the importance to not “confuse learning skills with content that becomes quickly outdated”, describing her belief that universities should put more emphasis on how a student can learn new skills, rather than simply on the facts they are learning.
For many academics, this ability to learn new skills lies in an individual’s creativity. Julie Ward, Labour MEP for north-west England, went as far as to suggest changing the ‘STEM’ acronym to ‘STEAM’, in order to include arts subjects. She added that parents who dissuade students from following arts subjects because of the belief that STEM subjects lead to better job prospects were wrong to do so. Indeed, recent research from Harvard University shows that although STEM-related careers grew strongly between 1989 and 2000, they have actually stalled since. On the other hand, jobs in creative industries rose by nearly 20% in the five years preceding June 2016.
Employers at the Birmingham roundtable agreed. Graham Thompsett, People Capability Director at Jaguar Land Rover, stated “there isn’t enough of that [creativity]”. Meanwhile, Mike Rowley, partner and Head of Education at KPMG, said that his company focused on softer skills rather than a particular degree or content. Google also follow suit, with many of the company’s “characteristics of success” being soft skills such as communication and empathy.
The findings suggest a gulf between what universities teach and what employers want. A recent study by Universities UK even showed that nearly 50% of subject knowledge acquired during the first year of a four-year course in technical degrees would be outdated upon graduation. Some attendees pointed towards the benefits of work placements to ensure students continue to apply their course content in a work environment, with Philip Plowden, vice-chancellor of Birmingham City University, noting the lack of autonomous thought that comes with lecture-format teaching.
“I have watched law students coming in with oodles of common sense from their everyday lives. You start teaching them and within about a year they can give you a lecture on contract law, but can’t solve a problem any more they could probably have solved when they came in.”
Other academics such as Frances Howell, Managing Director and Head of Corporate Banking for the Midlands at HSBC, suggested that the management of “mental wellbeing” should be prioritised. Jason Arday, senior teaching fellow in the Centre for Education Studies at the University of Warwick, also said that students felt the amount they were paying for degrees had changed their attitudes to the importance of course content and led to an added pressure on needing to deliver academically in exams.
For many, even though universities would remain the primary source of further education in the future, more and more people would “want to package their learning somewhat differently over a life course”, Armour suggested. With employers increasingly offering work experience and internships, this could well be the case.