Jack Hylands, Co-Founder of FourthRev

Although far from unique, the higher education sector has experienced a particularly tumultuous 12-months. The pandemic has brought unprecedented difficulties for all stakeholders, and myriad challenges remain across admissions, course delivery, and student and staff wellbeing. 

At the same time, universities have excelled in many ways. University research has been critical to developing vaccines in extraordinary timeframes, saving millions of lives. University graduates have been heroes of the pandemic response as experts of the statistical, scientific and medical professions. And universities have experienced record applications and enrolments, testament to the fact that in times of uncertainty, more people trust their futures to universities. 

And beyond these short term horizons, the key trends that were posing existential questions for university leaders before the pandemic have not gone away. Instead they have been accelerated and exacerbated by the mixture of economic crisis and rapid digital transformation that has characterised the global economy. 

So as vaccine programmes start to be rolled out at scale and we begin to look to the post-pandemic future, the critical question for sector leaders is how do universities lead societies, and themselves, to bounce back stronger than before? 

The post-pandemic recovery will be built upon the digital economy

TechUK’s jobs barometer found that 45% of surveyed UK businesses were actively recruiting for tech roles in the first month of 2021.

Antony Walker, Deputy CEO of techUK, said: “Amidst the global pandemic we know that technology and tech-enabled jobs are sustaining the economy, as well as providing the key to our economic recovery.”

Microsoft has recently forecast that digital technology job capacity will increase by 149 million worldwide by 2025, including 3 million in the UK.

A recent report by RMIT university and Deloitte Access Economics reached similar conclusions on the Australian economy, whilst highlighting that a lack of digital skills risked $10 billion growth over the same period. These critical gaps are in well-known fields including data analytics, software programming, artificial intelligence and cyber security.

Universities already faced challenges in developing learners’ digital skills prior to the pandemic, and it is clear that this need will only become more acute into the future. With digital skills a prerequisite for 82% of all UK job roles as early as 2019, learners across every discipline need the opportunity to develop up-to-date, industry relevant, digital knowledge and skills. To meet employer expectations, this means graduates being able to evidence meaningful technical and enterprise capabilities through work experience and project portfolios. 

Education offerings for a digital economy should build upon the best of traditional university education

The common backlash against increased demand for digital skills in universities is that it equates to a call to eschew traditional university offerings in favour of becoming jobs factories defined by industry. This debate rests on false binaries that have held the sector back from fully embracing its unique role in the digital economy. 

Businesses that have survived the last 12-months have done so because their teams are full of individuals that can solve problems, that can exist in ambiguity and manage in uncertainty. Teams that have succeeded have rapidly learnt new ways of working, of communicating and engaging with each other.Teams that have thrived have reimagined entire business models by understanding the new challenges of their customers, and then successfully delivered them by empathising with the unique challenges of their colleagues. 

These are examples of the higher order capabilities that universities have successfully developed in individuals for generations. These are the capabilities that employers seek when they look for outstanding talent that can join their team and accelerate their careers. In a digital future, where the only certainty is continuous and rapid change, these higher order capabilities are more important than ever. 

To prosper in the post-pandemic world, the sector will build upon its traditional strengths, evolved and adapted to meet the needs of the modern, digital economy

The universities that lead our recovery will combine the best of their traditional educational value with up-to-date industry relevant experiences that develop critical digital capabilities. It is through this approach that universities can ensure learners have the requisite technical knowledge, skills and demonstrable know-how to accelerate their career in the short term, yet also possess the higher order capabilities to build their long term success. 

By tailoring these experiences to serve the needs of diverse learners at different stages of their lives, universities will also help people transition from challenging circumstances into new, high-growth careers. As we seek to bounce back from the pandemic, this is a wonderful way for universities to lead.

Jack Hylands, Co-Founder of FourthRev

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