The 4th Industrial Revolution: What skills do we need in education to prepare future generations?

Vice-Chancellor, Prof. David Phoenix, discusses the 4th Industrial Revolution:

I was recently invited to speak at the All Party Parliamentary Group of Apprenticeships on the topic of the 4th Industrial Revolution and to reflect on its implications for our skills agenda.

This is a very timely topic, as without a doubt, if we are to flourish as a knowledge based economy our approach to education will need to adapt in areas to meet the needs of 4IR.

The convergence of digital, biological and physical innovations could see smart technologies in factories and workplaces making decisions autonomously and will lead to different ways of working. The pace of change in many industries could be unprecedentedly rapid, with swathes of job roles made redundant or requiring significant re-skilling on an on-going basis.

Traditionally, education has focused on imparting a combination of knowledge and skills. But the importance that we have previously placed on learning facts has already been undermined by the reality that almost anyone can access a wealth of information with a few key strokes via a device in their pocket.  The differentiator for those that will succeed in this environment will relate not solely to knowledge but to their mastery of a wider skills set.

How therefore do you prepare the future workforce for changes you can’t predict? I argued at the meeting that we must model our skills agenda on three main areas of focus.

The first of these is core skills – literacy and numeracy. Regardless of the reskilling and upskilling individuals will need during their lifetime – they will always rely on these basic competencies. We need to reconsider how we teach these however, and we particularly need to review our rigid focus on maths and English GCSEs as the only marker of success.

In 2017, a third of 16 year olds in England failed to achieve GCSE maths and English. The policy of mandatory resits is not helping to combat this. In the same year, for those taking resits in an FE college only 13% achieved English and 5% achieved maths.

If we look to the population as a whole, in 2015 almost one fifth of 19-64 year olds held less than a Level 2 qualification. A further 39% held a Level 2 or 3. This creates the potential for almost two-thirds of our population being left behind by 4IR.

We need to look again at how we deliver these core skills. If I’m being treated by a nurse, I want them to have the numerical ability to know the difference between a microgram and a kilogram when handing out my prescription, but they don’t necessarily need a full GCSE in maths.

The second area is higher-level skills. 4IR will see the creation of new and complex technologies. This has the potential to create an hourglass economy – with segregation between those with high skill / high pay positions who manage and develop these technologies, and those in low skill / low pay positions who have been largely pushed out of the workforce due to automation. To avoid this, increasing the skills of our population – particularly in engineering and STEM areas is crucial.

Despite frequent suggestions, the UK does not have too many graduates. We have a comparable number to many other OECD countries. We do however have a lack of individuals educated to Levels 4 and 5, particularly in technical subjects. The solution to this is not restricting access to degree level programmes, but unblocking the pipeline of learners who have not achieved Level 2 and 3 qualifications so we can increase the numbers of people with higher level skills and strengthen our access to appropriately qualified multidisciplinary teams.

The final area links to employability skills, also known as soft skills. People will continue to need competencies for their roles but these will keep changing. Digitalisation and automation will make the ‘human’ element of people’s job roles increasingly important. The responsibility will therefore fall on educators to develop in our learners these skills and attributes, many of which are encapsulated in entrepreneurship and enterprise education. These include not only resilience but also skills and attributes such as initiative, innovation, creativity, curiosity, critical and creative thinking, self-confidence and resourcefulness. These are the skills that will be key to the leadership and growth of the country’s economy

At London South Bank University, we are addressing these issues. We have created an educational framework which ensures our students have opportunities to apply the knowledge we teach them, and are engaged in extracurricular activities to help generate the confidence that enables them to go out and deliver.

One example is our Legal Advice Clinic, where our law students (under the supervision of qualified solicitors on staff) are able to offer members of the local community impartial and free legal advice.

Our Student Life Centre builds upon this by guiding students through the process of securing employment – even after they’ve graduated. Our own employment agency, Elephant Works, provides opportunities for students to experience employability from day one of their student journey.

4IR will bring many challenges but we can begin to prepare learners by continuing to ensure our qualifications contain both knowledge and skills together. Every course contains a balance of both these elements whether academic or vocational. While the knowledge base of a degree will set them up for their chosen job role and sector the skills they achieve will equip learners with the competencies that will set them up for a career.


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