Transforming higher education for the sake of the world
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Transforming higher education for the sake of the world

Transforming higher education for the sake of the world

For higher education to bridge the skills gap and to ensure that university graduates add economic and societal value, it should address key questions


Employers lament the fact that new graduates lack basic skills that contribute meaningfully to their workplace. Indeed, many of us of an older generation would agree that most of what we learned at university, if we remember it at all, has served us little in our professional lives.

For higher education to bridge the skills gap and to ensure that university graduates add economic and societal value, it should address three questions: what skills are students being taught, how and whether students are really learning them, and how effective are they in the workplace.

A traditional university’s curriculum often centers on discrete subject matter taught through siloed academic disciplines, although we all know that our complex world’s challenges do not fit neatly into these disciplines. For example, a policymaker or a business executive who had to make decisions during the recent pandemic should have been able to make sense of rapidly changing health, legal, macro-economic, and even psychological information as it related to the decisions that needed to be made – something no education would have prepared them for even if they were to take a smattering of introductory level classes across those disciplines.

This same policymaker might be confronted with a different set of complex issues in the next few years that needs yet another set of cognitive and interdisciplinary skills. Universities should, therefore, be intentionally reinventing their curricula so that they make interdisciplinarity a fundamental pillar of everything they teach, in order to enable students to solve real world problems, regardless of the career path they pursue.

Universities’ teaching methodologies are rarely more effective than their curricular design. The near universal reliance on the lecture, which is a highly cost effective way of teaching, and a miserably ineffectual way of learning, is the source of this issue.

Test and lecture methodologies have been widely proven to result in over 60 per cent learning loss only a few short months after the end of a semester. It is well known that our ability to retain information decreases drastically over time, as demonstrated by the Ebbinghaus Forgetting curve. But decades of research have demonstrated how to teach students in such a way that they are deeply engaged learners and can increase retention rate by 7-14X over the test and lecture methodology.

Those universities that will combine Fully Active Learning teaching methodologies as well as thoughtful interdisciplinary curricula can drastically increase how much students actively recall, and more importantly, apply and transfer what they have learned across contexts and disciplines.

All this makes it apparent as to why employers widely believe that university education is not relevant to day to day life. According to the Strada Gallup 2017 survey, only 11 per cent of all employers believe that graduates have the skills necessary for the workplace. Though technical skills are important to an extent, they often times become outdated requiring a constant cycle of effective learning and relearning. What universities should be nurturing instead are enduring skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, effective collaboration and communication- skills that can be transferred across different contexts, even those that are new, unknown and unlearned.

To achieve that, these skills should be intentionally taught and be an explicit part of the curriculum, allowing students to practise them in professional contexts.

None of us can predict how the world will evolve or what kinds of jobs will be created, and that is precisely why we should equip students with enduring skills and the cognitive ability to transfer them into new and unknown contexts. Unless we radically change how we educate students, we will be unable to achieve that.

Ben Nelson is the CEO of Minerva Project

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