How will universities prepare students for Industry 4.0?

How will people be motivated to study when in Mexico alone, for example, nine million jobs are expected to be lost over the next 10 years. “What will the role of universities be?”

This was how José Escamilla, educational innovation director at the Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico, opened a discussion about the role of universities in the digital era at the ‘EnlightED: Reinventing education in a digital world’ conference in Madrid, Spain.

The conference, held on 3-5 October, drew an international audience of around 1,000 to debate questions like: ‘How is technology transforming education? What opportunities does it bring to enable access to learning? What are the main challenges in the world of edtech?’

The panel on ‘universities in the digital era’ included Carlos Ivan Simonsen, president of Fundação Getulio Vargas in Brazil; Pelayo Covarrubias, president of the Fundación País Digital and director of institutional relations at the Universidad del Desarrollo in Chile; Juan Romo, rector at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid; and the moderator, José Escamilla.

Romo responded by emphasising the importance of students of the future needing, for example, soft skills and a solid moral compass. He explained that at his university humanities are a core subject for everyone, including engineers, because in the future everyone will need to understand the importance of ethics, for example. “At our university we see data as wealth,” he said, “but the more important question is where does this wealth go?”

In the same way that medicine is becoming increasingly personalised, we will have to think about university education in the same way, Romo argued. “Artificial intelligence [AI] means people will have richer and more impacting educational experiences,” he said, “and we are going to need more qualified lecturers to programme the AI to deliver that education.”

Romo explained that in Madrid universities, such as the Universidad de Alcalá and Universidad Complutense de Madrid, are currently working on a new school to train lecturers for the challenges of the digital era.

He said universities need to forget the idea of separate disciplines like law or economics as the barriers between the subjects are unhelpful. He believes that universities need to take a more radical approach. “Having interdisciplinary subjects is not enough,” he said, “we need to be anti-disciplinary.”

The debate then turned to the importance of rankings. Covarrubias explained that because rankings have been partly based on publications in academic journals, universities have become much more orientated towards obtaining funding.

“Instead they should be more orientated towards the business world,” he said. “The challenge is for universities to orientate themselves towards specific tasks to help resolve problems in the world.”

This was a theme also taken up by a panel on ‘Industry 4.0: Shaping newly skilled managers in the digital revolution’, which included Francisco Veloso, dean of the Imperial College Business School in London; Jikyeong Kang, dean of the Asian Institute of Management in the Philippines; Enase Okonedo, dean of Lagos Business School, Nigeria; Martin Boehm, dean of IE Business School in Spain; and the moderator, Nunzio Quacquarelli, CEO of QS.

Quacquarelli and Kang kicked off the session by debating the importance of teaching students resilience. “Millennials want quick fixes,” Kang argued. “We now have a very different audience and we are having to radically rethink our MBA and undergraduate programmes [as a result].”

Veloso explained that his business school had a “visualisation room” in which students were “thrown a lot of data”. They have to analyse that data and in a team present it using the information and tools available in the room. “In terms of resilience, we need to ensure that students are not going to be paralysed when faced with a new environment,” he said. “The student has to have a toolkit to address problems within new environments.”

Boehm said that at IE they taught resilience by taking students outside of their comfort zone. “Spain has an amazing culinary history,” he said, “and so we teach students how to cook a paella. Many of them have never cooked one and they learn that when they fail doing it, they have to stand up again [and continue]. We put a time limit on it,” he said. “Does the professor have to eat the paella at the end?” enquired the moderator.

The discussion then turned to what employers are now looking for among students. “We have found that employers want students to have problem-solving skills,” said Kang. “But first we have to practise what we preach when we are looking for professors… they need to be able to deal with business corporations, government and academia; that is how we can transform ourselves.”

Boehm agreed with the importance of students being able to solve new problems as they arise. “Students of the future will need to understand how to deal with technology; have human skills, such as empathy and innovation; and critical thinking skills,” he said. “So we will need courses to address them.”

Boehm then gave an example of a student who is "chief decision-making officer" in a large multinational and who went to the CEO with a doubt about his suitability for the post. “I’m not a programmer or a tech guy,” he said, and the CEO responded: “We don’t want that; we want someone to ask the right questions and that is why we chose you.”

“We need to teach our students to think holistically,” Boehm said.

The conference was organised by Fundación Telefónica, IE University (a private non-profit university owned by the Instituto de Empresa SL), and South Summit (a ‘leading innovation global platform focused on business opportunities and disruptive trends’).