The changing face of higher education

Higher education is changing rapidly - what does this mean for university and careers advisors in schools?

What does it mean to be ready to leave school? Counsellers and advisers can’t just make sure students have a plan for the next three or four years; they must help students to prepare themselves for the next ten years. To do this, university preparation and careers guidance professionals need the same flexible, fluid approach as the market – and, most importantly, they need to be armed with accurate, real-time information in order to help their students make the types of decisions, today, that will position them for bright futures.

Half a century ago, a university education was seen as an elite privilege, reserved for the wealthy, ambitious, and upwardly mobile. There were fewer than 30 million people enrolled in higher education in 1970. Since then, the size of the world’s student body has, it’s fair to say, grown significantly. By 2025, experts estimate that the number of students in higher education worldwide will have risen to 262 million .

The rapid growth in the number of students in higher education is important – but it’s also part of a bigger story. The explosion of student demand for higher education means that there is a great deal more competition than before on all sides of the school-university-student ecosystem. What’s more, students now have career options that are remarkably far from the potential pathways they might have followed 20 or even ten years ago. Every day, school counsellors and careers advisers are faced with an immensely complex post-secondary landscape.

The dangers of rapid growth

Higher education becoming broader is certainly a good thing, leading to better access to tertiary learning and professional opportunities for a larger percentage of the population. However, the consequences of that growth are under-examined. The size of the industry means universities are run much more like businesses than they were in the past. Budget cuts have been severe – in the UK, the contribution to each student’s funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England has dropped by over 86% – which has led to an increase in private funding and corporate involvement to fill the financial gap.

This approach has many good effects: students have more of a say in their university’s principles and management, higher behavioural standards are introduced, and results are more public. But it also means that competition is more of a factor in HE now. There are more students, which means more competition for the most attractive courses and universities. Universities have to compete for the top students. And more competition across the board means that confusing practices have taken hold.

Playing games

One example of this is offer transparency. Universities publish minimum grade requirements for a course that are much lower or higher than the grades actually requested of a student. What’s more, some universities will be very flexible if a student misses their offer grades. Often, this data is not public, or very hard to track down. When a university honours the offer it has made to a student, even if that student has missed the offer by several full grades, it’s because the same university has artificially inflated its minimum requirements. High minimum requirements help busy admissions officers feel reassured that they’ll only get the best applicants, despite wide acceptance that grades are just one part of a student’s holistic quality and aptitude for a course. Asking students to accept a university’s minimum requirements without any sort of transparency as to how they relate to eventual grade achievements is an unfair request: it demands that students gamble on their futures without all of the relevant information.

The next generation of careers

Lack of transparency is also damaging to students when it comes to their post-graduation pathways. While it’s easy to dismiss the career worries of students as typical of early-20s malaise, how these worries align with the labour market should concern us all. Skills demand is changing fast: a popular report estimated that 65% of children entering primary school ten years ago will end up employed in jobs that don’t exist yet. That means that we currently only understand 35% of the future labour market, but students are being trained for careers that don’t take into account the development of brand new jobs and skillsets. Even now, 40% of firms across the world cannot fully staff their businesses: the people with the right combination of skills and experience simply aren’t there. We undersupply needed skills, such as technical and social expertise, and oversupply skills that are nearly redundant – like expertise in systems that will be replaced in the near future. Universities often focus on learning from the past, which is certainly helpful, but it should not come at the cost of looking at predictive trends and striving to innovate for the future.

So if students need to prepare to enter a workforce that we don’t yet fully understand, how can schools and universities get a better grasp on the future? Well, everyone involved in education should be devoting a significant amount of time to thinking about how industries are changing, from increasing reliance on freelancers, to developing technologies for better flexible working. Bringing an educational perspective to these changes will benefit not only schools and students, but also positively affect the global economy, by reducing the skills gap and better meeting the needs of the labour market.

Future-proof qualifications

The most crucial strategy is to adopt flexibility. Traditionally, careers have been thought of linearly: a straight line from graduation to retirement. But tomorrow’s jobs and tomorrow’s workers won’t conform to anything like this rigid pathway. People will expect to be able to move around and change up their options; they’ll want work to fit into their lives, not the other way around. Jobs and organisations will no longer be structured in the anticipation that people will rise consistently through hierarchical layers. Instead, people will expect, and be expected, to dot around different areas, accumulating horizontal experience and skills from across industries. These skills, essentially flexible and focused on technical development, resource management, process and content capacity, will enable innovative thinking and inspire people to achieve excellence. These skills are the qualifications of the future.

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