What is the role of universities in global upskilling?

Wide-scale investment in upskilling has the potential to boost global gross domestic product (GDP) by US$6.5 trillion by 2030 and lead to the creation of 5.3 million net new jobs globally by 2030, according to a new report published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) on 21 January.

Upskilling for Shared Prosperity, prepared in collaboration with PwC, is a call to action. It makes the economic case for providing employees with learning and development opportunities to expand their horizons while minimising skills gaps and makes sweeping generalisations while presenting country- and region-specific information that indicates that there are great differences between these.

The report predicts that upskilling and reskilling could propel the transition to an economy where human labour is increasingly complemented and augmented – rather than replaced – by new technology, thus improving the overall quality of jobs.

The number of jobs that require creativity, innovation and empathy is expected to rise with an increased need for information technology skills. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report from 2020 shows that in the majority of business sectors, companies state that skills gaps are the prime reason there are barriers to adopting new technologies that would increase productivity.

The fourth industrial revolution

The diagnosis of the report is that there is a fast-growing void and stark mismatch between people’s current skills and the skills needed for jobs that will be created in the next decade and that will become more prevalent because of the changes brought about by the fourth industrial revolution. Governments, businesses and educational institutions are simply not helping people acquire the skills they need to succeed.

This includes acquiring relevant knowledge for new types of jobs, through digital upskilling for example, and developing transferable skills, such as critical thinking, creativity or even self-management. It is often these skills that make people more versatile, resilient and adaptable – and more able to participate fully in the fourth industrial revolution economy, whether working for a business or starting one of their own.

Developing such wide skill sets requires a learning or growth mindset: the ability to keep developing skills over time. This is different from a narrow view of upskilling that presupposes people have a basic set of skills to learn a task quickly. A learning mindset – learning to learn – continuously requires training, ideally from a young age, perhaps even starting in elementary education.

Inertia in educational systems

The new Davos report points out that education systems – in particular secondary and tertiary education – must act and embrace this to play a central role in a comprehensive upskilling agenda.

Recent European Union communications on the European Education Area, the European Skills Agenda, the Digital Education Action Plan with a focus on micro-credentials and the European Higher Education Area Rome Communiqué have already brought reskilling and upskilling to the forefront of the debate on changing the tertiary educational offer.

The EHEA Rome Communiqué underlines that “higher education institutions have the potential to drive major change – improving the knowledge, skills and competences of students and society to contribute to sustainability, environmental protection and other crucial objectives. They must prepare learners to become active, critical and responsible citizens and offer lifelong learning opportunities to support them in their societal role.”

The report points out that the COVID-19 crisis has alerted educators and training providers to the opportunity to build on the fault lines of current systems exposed by COVID-19 as a moment of transformation for the sector. Even before the pandemic, the education and training sector was undergoing rapid transformation, with a wide range of online learning opportunities that also combined offline, face-to-face and experiential learning for a more humancentric learning experience.

The report Upskilling for Shared Prosperity finds that dual vocational training systems are particularly effective in emerging and developing countries – by combining theory and training embedded in a real-life work environment. Despite these encouraging trends, the global education and training sector remains fragmented and would benefit significantly from the emergence of a more comprehensively interconnected ecosystem.

Several higher education areas urgently need addressing:

Curricula: Prioritise vocational and higher education curricula that are ‘just in time’ rather than ‘just in case’, working with business.

Technology: Scale up the provision of self-directed learning and nano-degrees for lifelong learning. (A nano-degree is a certified online educational programme that helps students develop specialised skills in areas related to computer science, for example, data science, programming, artificial intelligence, etc. Nano-degrees target professionals who want to learn new advanced skills or develop their current abilities, which will allow them to work with the latest technological developments).

Education providers: Embrace the future of work as a source of reinvention to normalise lifelong learning for all online open courses and other forms of online learning, in addition to the direct human-to-human connection of traditional learning.

Qualifications, experiences and recognition: Build bridges between national qualification systems and lifelong learning. In emerging countries, even experiences obtained in informal sectors are being framed for proper recognition, to improve the employment prospects of people in new jobs.

Connectivity: Link schools and places of learning with each other globally – currently, for example, UNICEF’s Giga initiative aims to connect every school globally to the internet.

Credentialing: Develop and adopt at scale a much more joined-up taxonomy and recognition system for skills and credentials across countries, education systems and industries.

US and China have the most to gain

Countries with high existing levels of education and training, small workforces and-or more even demographics will have smaller gains because their current skills gap is not large (for example, Germany and Japan).

Countries with skilled workforces but comparatively smaller job markets will also see fewer benefits (for example, the United Arab Emirates, where the private sector is underdeveloped). That is why it is important to develop transferable skills that allow for reskilling for sectors that are growing. The impact on mobility or skilled migrant workers because of COVID-19 will highlight this need.

The world’s biggest economies, the United States and China, have the most to gain economically in absolute terms.

The report uses two scenario forecasts of GDP growth until 2030 based on the OECD best practice model for closing the skills gap. In the ‘accelerated scenario’ this gap is closed in 2028 and in the ‘core scenario’ in 2030, both based on PwC data analysis.

Additional GDP potential due to upskilling is highest for China in the accelerated scenario at 7.5% and at 3.6% in the core scenario. At the accelerated scenario the potential gain for China will be US$2 trillion dollars, more than twice the amount of the US. It is likely that China might achieve the more accelerated scenario. In 2019, it committed to spending US$14.8 billion to train 50 million people by 2022.

Denmark and Singapore are mentioned as lead countries experimenting with upskilling of their workforce.

Role of universities

The WEF report highlights many challenges and states that the ‘disconnect’ between current educational programmes and the skills employers need today and in the future have to be addressed.

“Transformational change is difficult. The labour market is a social institution embedded in a dense web of rules, habits and conventions; the employment adjustment costs are substantial, even in the face of major changes, such as the arrival of new and disruptive technologies. Education is one of the slowest institutions to change in this society,” the report says.

If higher education is currently playing an insignificant role in upskilling, what changes would enable it to have a bigger role? University World News has talked to stakeholders on their views and how optimistic they are that universities can and will play a key role.

Dirk Van Damme, senior counsellor at the Directorate for Education and Skills and head of the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation at the OECD, told University World News: “The provision of lifelong learning is rapidly becoming a very diversified landscape. Do universities have to play a role? Absolutely! Research-informed advanced education for both professionals with a tertiary qualification who want to constantly update their knowledge and skills, and people who want to upgrade their level of qualification should be an integral part of the supply side.

“But seriously engaging in lifelong learning is a challenging task. Copy-pasting existing courses is not going to work. Customary teaching and learning arrangements, a long trajectory of full-time study towards a degree, is not the best way to reach, motivate and retain adult learners.

“New arrangements – shorter, modular, part-time, with mixtures of in-person teaching and asynchronous self-directed learning – have to be developed. And to do that in a high-quality manner requires an enormous investment.”

Ellen Hazelkorn is joint managing partner at BH Associates and joint editor of Policy Reviews in Higher Education, as well as professor emerita of the Technological University Dublin in Ireland and a commissioner of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future. She told University World News that the COVID-19 pandemic – alongside the challenges of demographic shifts, technological advances and climate change – has accelerated discussion around the public value of higher education as civic universities.

“Too often collaboration with local or regional social, cultural and economic stakeholders is seen as less significant or noteworthy than research or international collaboration – or that this is a role of relevance only for some universities. Too often also, there is a tetchiness about associating university education with the world of work.

“Nothing could be further from the truth. Universities are responsible for knowledge and skill development, knowledge production and innovation diffusion. They play a vital role in generating absorptive capacity, helping develop skilled graduates who are able to apply and synthesise knowledge across all technological areas and help renew competences in traditional sectors,” Hazelkorn said.

Flexibility and responsiveness

She said as universities rethink their programmes, research and institutional practices, it is clear there needs to be much greater commitment to flexibility and responsiveness to meet new or future challenges, and the needs and demands of a very diverse learner cohort.

“Boundaries between the workplace or community as a learning site are becoming more porous and this should be accelerated. Innovative modes of delivery and assessment, learner and career pathways, shorter and different types of courses or programmes and new forms of modularised and micro-credential are becoming attractive to traditional and non-traditional students. There is a responsibility to expand and revise educational opportunities to cater for reskilling and upskilling.”

Hazelkorn said the UNESCO Global Education 2030 Agenda recognises that “education is both a goal in itself and a means for attaining all the other Sustainable Development Goals. This requires more than soundbites. It is a call to action for all universities.”

Universities as a preferred ‘travel guide’

Professor Sylvia Schwaag Serger, who was deputy vice-chancellor of Lund University in Sweden in 2018-20 and former director for international strategy at Vinnova, the innovation agency of the Swedish government, told University World News that universities can and need to play a much bigger role in upskilling and lifelong learning than they do today.

“It is (or should be) part of their fundamental role. It is also an essential input and source of renewal for undergraduate and graduate teaching, thus strengthening universities’ ability to serve a rapidly changing society and economy,” she said.

It is also an important vehicle for disseminating and communicating state-of-the-art research to the existing workforce, she said.

“As learning becomes a more continuous, lifelong journey for more and more people in the knowledge society, universities should seek to become their preferred travel guide and companion.”

Need for upskilling is clear

Professor Emeritus Bert Van der Zwaan, who was rector magnificus of Utrecht University in the Netherlands in 2011-18 and chairman of the League of European Research Universities in 2016-18 and is author of Higher Education in 2040: A global approach, told University World News that the need for upskilling and lifelong learning has been clear for a long time.

“However, it has also become quite evident that the incentives for research universities to change their curricula in that direction are simply not enough; they are funded for, and thus focused on, fundamental research and are too far from the labour market to react adequately.”

He said applied universities and polytechnics, higher education institutions with vocational missions, are best placed to take the lead here. If they are successful, research universities will eventually follow, because their alumni will increasingly need to renew and update their skills in the context of a rapidly changing labour market, he added.

“It should be clear, however, that all visions and talks about upskilling are useless if it is not recognised that governments are instrumental in getting higher education institutions moving in the direction of lifelong learning, certainly in the phase when it is financially not profitable, as it is now.

“The Singapore case shows that it is in the interests of a whole country to upskill its labour force and thus to develop national policies that lead to the rapid changes in the higher education landscape that are required,” he said.

Why is lifelong learning not more recognised?

Michael Gaebel, head of the Higher Education Policy Unit at the European University Association (EUA), said universities across Europe, individually and in networks, already play major roles in innovation ecosystems, as partners for education and training, and central brokers in connecting different stakeholders, including local and global industries, and civil society.

“Higher education graduates take up new jobs, but also create them. So, lifelong learning is, in a way, already a reality through the knowledge, cooperation, exchange flows. A question is why is lifelong learning not more visible and recognised, both as an achievement for individual learners, and a mission of the higher education institution?”

He said that short courses, for example, have not received much attention until recently. But a new EUA report shows that every second university in European provides online short courses, and many have done so for quite some years.

A task for universities?

Göran Melin, an educational expert in the Technopolis Group in Stockholm, Sweden, told University World News that he is sceptical about higher education institutions’ ability to deliver the upskilling education and training that the report calls for.

“First, because most higher education institutions have too weak links and contacts with the labour market; secondly, because they are too slow in developing the upskilling course packages that are needed – it can take years for them to launch a new education programme.

“It can actually be questioned whether universities should have this task at all. Perhaps VET (vocational education and training) institutions are better placed. Upskilling also requires structures for recognition of prior learning which most higher education institutions lack,” he said.

But Nina Sandberg, member of the Norwegian parliament and spokesperson for higher education for the Labour Party, who is head of a campaign for strengthening lifelong learning at higher education institutions, notably through greater collaboration with industry and business, has proposed to link this work to universities’ budgets.

She told University World News: “Equal access to lifelong learning is fundamental for individuals, businesses and Norwegian society at large. In modern societies, higher education institutions are crucial generators of knowledge and technology. In my opinion, the question is not if universities should have this task, but how they may succeed in providing both first-time education to 19-year-olds, as well as upskilling the labour force in rapidly changing environments.”

She said higher education institutions have always had an important role in aiding societies in their development, and meeting new challenges. Hence, universities will need to transform their curricula and be sensitive to the needs of a more comprehensive, changing group of students.

Sandberg said: “Universities are already facing severe changes, and in Norway they have been subjected to substantial cuts in funding in recent years. The institutions have to balance different values and interests. The government must take this into account and provide them with support and guidance. Hence, the Labour Party recently suggested adjusting the funding structures to make sure they provide incentives to develop shorter courses and modules.”