It was a long summer of discontent for universities, who took a pummelling from Fleet Street and various lords a leaping. But now they are back to the serious job of educating people for a rapidly-changing world. Most commentators are clear about the trajectory and drivers of these changes, but not the speed. Machine learning will transform businesses and services of all kinds, the fourth industrial revolution (i4.0) will radically overturn manufacturing processes, 5G will finally deliver the mobile superhighway, and automation will rapidly replace people.
At the recent launch of the World Economic Forum's (WEF) report on Human Capital, the Chairman, Karl Schwab noted: '...we are facing a global talent crisis. We need a new mind-set and a true revolution to adapt our educational systems to the education needed for the future work force...'
At one level, we have heard all the hype before and the UK has ploughed on as one of the top ten economies in the world. But this time the ship could hit the iceberg.
Woody Allen once quipped that: 'In the future the lion and the calf shall lie down together, but the calf won't get much sleep.' That just about sums up the current business environment. Brexit is challenging enough, but only 8% of UK manufacturers have a significant understanding of i4.0, and half say they do not understand it.
Food 4.0 will integrate massive data, nano-technologies, genomics, and IT alongside renewables, ecological policies, and environmental literacy. Is the UK's food sector ready for this? And the professional services sector is heading through the machine learning looking glass. Knowledge-intensive professions produce 34% of the output in the UK and 29% of employment, and here is a lively and profound debate going on in among the Big Four accountancy firms with some arguing they will drastically reduce their need for graduates, and others claiming that AI will change the type of hires they need. The auditors, lawyers, and consultants of the future will need to grasp their discipline alongside AI, blockchain, computational techniques, alongside the ways in which these disrupt their clients (as well as themselves).
Business is inherently about managing through confusion and placing the right mix of bets on technologies, processes, buildings, and countries. But fundamentally and vitally, they must get the talent mix right. And that mix will be very different. Mark Cuban, the billionaire tech investor recently argued: 'I personally think there's going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering...When the data and options are being spit out for you for you, a different perspective is needed in order to have a different view of the data.' Obviously, it's a provocation, and we will need graduates from all disciplines. But fundamentally business needs universities to produce to produce really-smart, adaptable people able to cope with change and confusion. We have spent over a decade talking about work-ready graduates, now we need future-ready graduates.
The WEF Index marks the UK at 23rd in the world. One of the few high spots is the skill diversity of graduates and we must build on this to cope with the coming flood. It is absolutely vitally we must move post-18 educational work experience (of all kinds) from best-endeavours and good-will to a structured and scaled solution. To help with this task, the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) is launching Placer, a work experience app for the UK, that will break down barriers to this new world and prepare UK graduates for the uncertain future.