From education to employment

How can we make higher education more relevant for the 21st century?

Katherine Emms

As we rebuild our economy post-pandemic, new approaches to education will be key. Higher Education (HE) is expected to play a profound role, begging an important question: how can we ensure that HE equips young people with the knowledge, skills and aptitudes they need to thrive in the 21st century?

To answer this, the Edge Foundation have published Rethinking Higher Education: Case Studies for the 21st Century. The report summarises key issues affecting the HE sector and offers insights into how we might do things differently moving forward. The following case studies provide a tantalizing taste of possible approaches.

Cardiff University National Software Academy

Cardiff University’s National Software Academy (NSA) was established in 2015 to tackle a shortage of software engineering skills in the region. The NSA prepares students for industry by adopting a work-like learning environment. Through client-facing projects (designed with employer input) students develop relevant technical, communication and project management skills. This involves putting theory into practice in a real-world context. For instance, one student team developed a travel app for their client – Transport for Wales. Courses are regularly updated to reflect the changing needs of industry, with student feedback refining the curriculum. This unique approach prepares students for the world of work, ensuring they have all the knowledge and skills that local employers require.

The Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology

Launched in 2017, The Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology offers one of the UK’s most competitive engineering degree apprenticeship programmes. Throughout a four-year degree, students remain Dyson employees, paying no study fees and earning a full-time wage. Core to the programme is the idea that academic study benefits from immediate application. Students, therefore, spend two days a week on academic study, and three on the job, working alongside Dyson engineers. They’re also allocated a ‘peer parent’ who offers them one-to-one support. Rotating through four-month placements across Dyson’s departments, learners tailor their degree as they progress, ultimately graduating as skilled engineers in their chosen area. Importantly, Dyson’s admissions process targets women: 33% of the Institute’s engineering undergraduates are female (15% higher than the national average).

Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute (KGI)

Minerva Schools at KGI has built their curriculum around four cornerstones: critical and creative thinking, effective communication and effective interactions. These underpin a broader-than-usual course of study for a liberal arts programme – students learn everything from systems analysis to scientific research methods. Crucially, all learning is through a unique online and participatory platform. This is not without purpose: throughout their four-year course students live and work in seven global cities, ranging from Buenos Aires to Berlin. Study is woven into bespoke professional development opportunities, in the form of work placements within civil organisations (e.g. charities or local government). This approach cultivates an international world-view, providing invaluable opportunities for students to develop wide-ranging, real-world skills.

Eden Project Learning (EPL)

A branch of the world-renowned Eden Project in Cornwall, EPL offers environmentally focused degree courses and apprenticeships. Students study in inspirational, multi-sensory learning environments, from laboratories to design studios. EPL cultivates a tight-knit bond between staff and students, with students living and working together. Online social networking, creative team projects and ongoing mental health support further strengthen this sense of community. Furthermore, students have regular access to environmentally-focused work-based learning (both at the Eden Project and related organisations like Kew Gardens). Each placement provides unique problem solving and design opportunities while offering a strong network of contacts to ease the transition into employment.

University of Salford

In 2017, University of Salford launched a new strategy to update its existing offering for the 21st century. Part of a ten-year plan, the university is moving towards a cross-disciplinary approach that reflects the reality of global issues. Emphasising industry collaboration, Salford is fundamentally reengineering its curriculum, student journeys and staff development. The new curriculum is built around ten core principals, incorporating capabilities like digital fluency and collaborative learning. Students and staff are encouraged to help shape the curriculum, while employer partners ensure it remains industry-relevant. Regardless of their area of study, students have regular access to work-based learning through regional employers. For instance, the local rugby union club provides internships for students in areas ranging from healthcare to media studies.

While the changes ahead are challenging, this report offers an enticing glimpse of possible future approaches to HE. New technologies, greater access to work-based learning and competency-driven curriculums are just a few of the things we must consider as we prepare young people for the 21st century. For more detail on all these case studies, you can download the full report.

Katherine Emms is Education and Policy Researcher at the Edge Foundation

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