The only certainty ahead for today’s university students is the world of work as we know it will change, says the dean of the Massey Business School Professor Ted Zorn. “The key to thriving in the 21st century is to have employees who can learn and adapt quickly, making sense of the opportunities and challenges ahead,” he says. “Preparing students for their first job is no longer enough. Graduates must develop the skills to ensure lifelong success – for themselves and for the organisations they work for.”
This, of course, is no mean feat. And it is not only a challenge for those at the start of their working lives. People at all stages of their careers are finding they need to adapt as jobs change, disappear or evolve.
There is no question that there will be heavy disruption to employment patterns as ever-increasing numbers of jobs face automation, Professor Zorn says. Jobs that are routine and repetitive are already being replaced.
“The trickle towards the automation of jobs may be relatively slow for the moment, but the flood may not be far off. As a business school dean, I think a lot about how we prepare our students for the future. We must ensure students are tech-savvy and have a willingness to use technology to complement and enhance their effectiveness.”
Focus on innovation
Universities also need to produce graduates who can continuously learn and innovate – and technology has a role to play. Massey University’s assistant vice-chancellor of Research, Academic and Enterprise, Professor Giselle Byrnes, says tertiary institutions are working hard to develop opportunities for flexible and remote learning and Massey is committed to remaining ahead of the game.
“Massey has a long history of successfully offering distance learning programmes and we have, for a long time, been the New Zealand leaders in this area,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean constant development isn’t needed.
“Students now expect a ‘just in time, just for me’ experience, which places a premium on learning experiences that are flexible, accessible and personalised. Students may be able to access almost any information online – but effective learning cannot be provided through simply accessing vast amounts of data.
“It’s the curation, analysis, interpretation and synthesis of that information that is important. This is the principal value proposition of a university education.”
Most institutions are embracing smart technology and digital platforms, she says, but the right teaching methods and approach should always remain at the forefront. “We shouldn’t get seduced by ‘bright shiny’ tech solutions unless they can enhance the learning and teaching experiences.”
But there is no doubt that technology-supported programmes increase access to education, including for those who wish to work at their own pace as part-time students and those who live in remote locations. Making it easier to update skills will become increasingly important as the job market changes.
These trends are also having an impact in classrooms all across the country, whether in high schools or university campuses. The flipped classroom model, where class time is focused on discussion, analysis and interpretation – not the acqusition of content – is increasingly becoming the norm.
To ensure its programmes are future-proofed, Massey University has embedded this thinking in two of its key programmes – the Bachelor of Arts, which was refreshed last year, and the new Bachelor of Business that launches in 2017.
Professor Richard Shaw, who oversaw the changes to the Bachelor of Arts, or BA, says the process of researching the skills employers value in their staff quickly busted the myth that BAs don’t boost job propspects. In a Massey University survey, only nine per cent of the employers who took part said a BA was not directly relevant to their needs.
“Employers are increasingly looking to complement workers’ technical skills with the transferable skills – the capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and cope with cultural diversity – that employees need to negotiate a world of work that is fast changing and unpredictable,” Professor Shaw says.
Skills to adapt
“What they need are employees who are able to learn something, unlearn it when circumstances change, and relearn something new – whether in commerce, computing, communications or creative industries – which are among the many career sectors that BA grads work in.”
He says Massey refreshed its BA with precisely these future developments in mind.
“We need people who can analyse issues astutely; who are technologically savvy; who can design ethical, sustainable solutions to challenging local or global problems; and who display empathy and leadership in their working relationships.”
Good transferable skills are not the exclusive domain of the BA. All graduates, no matter what subject they study or what sector they intend to work in, need to be able to communicate concepts, question ideas, synthesise information and apply it to changing circumstances.