Harriet Swain, Yvonne Browne, Graham Thompsett, Frances Howell and Sarah Stevens.

Universities are changing the way they teach to prepare students for a future in which lots of jobs will be automated

Afew numbers are enough to sum up how far the world of work is changing. More than six million workers fear their jobs could be replaced by machines in the next 10 years. Around 1.1 million people now work in the gig economy, using online platforms to find small, often on-demand, jobs. And a third of graduates find themselves mismatched to the jobs they secure on graduation.

What universities can do to prepare their graduates for an unknown future was the subject of a roundtable, sponsored by HSBC, held in Birmingham last week and attended by senior academic leaders, employers and policy-makers.

It emerged that the numbers did not paint the full picture. Take automation: Scott Corfe, chief economist at the Social Market Foundation, pointed out that automation did not necessarily mean fewer jobs – just different ones. And politicians were wrong to assume that these would largely be in programming; in fact, programming was likely to be automated in future, while more creative skills would still be in demand. “The key thing is to enable people to reskill and move around the job market in a more nimble way than they currently can do,” he said.

Paul Faulkner, chief executive of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, questioned the idea that an ever-changing, unknown jobs future was something new. “Every generation will have felt that way.”

Were students graduating without the skills needed by employers? It was important not to confuse learning skills with content that becomes quickly outdated, said Kathy Armour, pro vice-chancellor (education) at the University of Birmingham, while Alec Cameron, vice-chancellor and chief executive of Aston University, said content matters but mainly as “the context around which you can develop skills and attributes”.

Mike Rowley, Paul Faulkner, Kathy Armour and Sonia Hickey.

The consensus was that whatever the future of work looked like, it would demand creativity.

Julie Ward, Labour MEP for north-west England, stressed the importance of including arts in the emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics as key subjects, so that Stem becomes Steam. Parents who advised their children that taking arts subjects would harm their job prospects were making a mistake, she said.

Yvonne Brown, senior lecturer in management and human resources at Coventry University, said universities needed to ensure the way they assessed students encouraged teamwork and a creative approach to learning. It wasn’t just creativity that employers looked for, added Graham Thompsett, people capability director at Jaguar Land Rover – it was also curiosity. “There isn’t enough of that.”

Mike Rowley, partner and head of education at KPMG, said his company did not focus on a particular degree or content but on softer skills, which he argued should be taught to students at an earlier stage in the education system.

Work experience was essential in developing these skills, speakers agreed. Professor Philip Plowden, vice-chancellor of Birmingham City University, said work placements or experiential learning were invaluable in closing attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Not everyone approached the world of work from the same starting point: many students at Birmingham City came from deprived backgrounds and even short placements could help demystify office life and behaviour. “We talk about preparing students for an unknown future,” he said. “For a lot of my students it’s an unknown present.”

Work placements had another value too – in preserving students’ innate abilities. “I think sometimes universities inadvertently stamp out creativity,” he suggested. “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.”

Sarah Stevens, head of policy at the Russell Group, said another way of equipping students with transferable skills was enabling them to work closely with researchers to become independent learners and researchers in their own right.

But students needed to pick up more than learning skills from universities to have successful careers, argued Frances Howell, managing director and head of corporate banking Midlands Region, at HSBC. “Another thing that’s really important is around building the strength and skills of individuals to manage mental wellbeing,” she said.

Jason Arday, senior teaching fellow in the Centre for Education Studies at the University of Warwick, said students felt they were paying a lot of money to be at university and that had changed attitudes towards the skills institutions needed to deliver.

Sandy Lindsay, Scott Corfe and Jason Arday.

But it was not all up to universities, said Thompsett. Employers needed to change too. This meant working more closely with universities to develop skills and find suitable – and diverse – recruits.Advertisement

Plowden said he would “vehemently disagree” with any suggestion that universities were just about getting a job. But for Cameron it was “base level hygiene”. While he appreciated the sense of civic engagement, morals and values he derived from his university education, his ability to appreciate it all had been underpinned by the fact that he was employed, and universities failed their students if they did not give them that opportunity.

For Sandy Lindsay, founder and chair at the communications consultancy Tangerine, apprenticeships offered one solution. She set up the Juice Academy, a digital marketing apprenticeship programme, because she felt digital marketing was too fast-changing to be taught at the slow pace of a university setting.

Yet she felt the government’s current apprenticeship programme was a missed opportunity, lacking essential flexibility. And Plowden agreed that the bureaucracy involved was such that the apprenticeship system “makes us look like Usain Bolt”.

Slowness was particularly problematic in the pace of change on diversity, argued Arday. He was concerned at the persistent attainment gap between white and black and minority ethnic students and felt this was reinforced by the dearth of people of colour in leadership positions in universities or industry. “We don’t have a model reflective of the student population,” he argued.

But while many agreed that universities needed to be faster at responding to change, the solution was not just extra speed, countered Armour. She made the case for “slow learning”, rejecting the government’s enthusiasm for accelerated two-year courses in favour of a more modular approach, interspersed with periods of work. Why do we study for three years, she asked, rather than seven? “The idea that you will be able at 18 to study something and three years later you’ll have everything you need to take you through until you’re 75 is fanciful. If it ever were true it’s certainly not true now.”

She predicted that universities would remain trusted providers of education but there would be new ways to package material into microchunks. Only a few years ago, music lovers could only buy records on an LP, but now most young people buy bits and pieces through iTunes, she said. “You can see a lot of students who might want to package their learning somewhat differently over a life course,” she said. “That seems to me where the future is.”

The round table in Birmingham.

At the table

Rachel Hall (chair), Universities editor, The Guardian

Alec Cameron, vice-chancellor and chief executive professor of Aston University

Sandy Lindsay, founder and chair at Tangerine & The Juice Academy

Frances Howell, managing director and head of corporate banking, Midlands Region, HSBC

Paul Faulkner, CEO, Birmingham Chamber of Commerce

Scott Corfe, chief economist, Social Market Foundation

Julie Ward, Labour MEP for north-west England

Michael Rowley, partner and head of education, KPMG

Professor Philip Plowden, vice-chancellor of Birmingham City University

Professor Kathy Armour, pro-vice-chancellor (education), University of Birmingham

Graham Thompsett, people capability director, Jaguar Land Rover

Yvonne Browne, senior lecturer in management and human resources, Coventry University London

Jason Arday, senior teaching fellow in the Centre for Education Studies, University of Warwick

Sarah Stevens, head of policy, the Russell Group