A 21st Century Challenge: universities and inclusive growth

We are facing a transformation, or even a revolution, in how work is organised and in the jobs that exist in our society. This transformation is not far away – and some changes are already happening. We already see headlines about “robots taking YOUR jobs”, artificial intelligence deciding your future whilst spying on you, and so on. While some of these headlines are no more than scaremongering or a misunderstanding of how the technology will work, we do urgently need to think about the implications of these changes and plan for them.

In approaching this new era, we need to learn lessons from the past and find solutions for our future. Universities need not only to contribute to those solutions, but to lead and guide others towards them. This is what universities have always been good at – discovering the future through research – but now they also need to examine and develop new ways of learning and working for a different and more inclusive society.  We would argue that this needs to be the central purpose of universities in the 21st century.

The fourth industrial revolution

As Charlotte Malton’s Wonkhe blog recently highlighted, predicting the future can be precarious.  But many changes are already visible and becoming pervasive. However universities, while creating many of the technologies, have themselves been slow to respond and develop a new map of learning for the 21st century. Recently, Juergen Maier’s Made Smarter Review highlighted the scale of change brought about by industrial digitalisation that is already transforming the world of work. Each day, around five million devices link up with each other, with the internet, or with both. There are around 6.4 billion data-communication objects in the world today – with expected growth to around 20 billion by 2020.  This transformation is being referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, brought about by the convergence of a range of technological breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, analytics and the internet of things.

In the 1970s, during a previous industrial revolution, we saw the decline and finally the ending of particular large mechanical factories, mines, forges and processes. With manufacturing altered and with increased global competition, a number of industries closed down in the UK and elsewhere in the West. This put large numbers of people out of work and families and communities, who had relied on that work for at least 100 years, were left behind. At the time we did not plan for this transformation across the country. Indeed, we now recognise that there are many parts of the country that have not recovered from the reshaping of the UK’s economic geography to focus almost entirely on London, as one of the new global cities, and the South East as its dormitory suburb. The recent Social Mobility Commission report draws out this point very starkly.

Left behind: Is digitalisation the new globalisation?

What is to be done? As we enter what people are calling Industry 4.0, where many of the jobs that previously provided routes for upward social mobility are being eroded, we need to prepare for the skills of the future. As Matthew Taylor has commented in relation to his review of modern working practices, digitalisation is in danger of becoming the new globalisation, exacerbating the challenge for those already left behind in an ever-more-connected world. How might we do things differently this time, to plan for inclusive growth not just growth in already promising peaks? We need growth across the country, creating nodes of development not just in our big cities, but in our small cities and market towns and in the forgotten rural and coastal areas.

In the UK, the US and across Europe, there have been broadly similar shifts in the shape of the labour market. Since the early 1990s these developed countries have experienced labour market polarisation – a disproportionate increase in high-paid and low-paid employment. Sustained growth in high wage, abstract, non-routine jobs; an expansion of manual, lower wage jobs; and a contraction of routine, middle wage jobs has led to a ‘hollowing out’ of the labour market,  essentially creating an hourglass-shaped labour market.

This is a significant issue in Greater Lincolnshire. Projections for this part of the country show a similar, indeed more pronounced pattern. For example, current data shows that there are around 160,000 jobs that require a Level 4 qualification or higher with approximately 145,000 residents of working age qualified to this level.  Forecasts predict that an additional 126,000 job vacancies will require this level of qualification by 2022. It is important to recognise that filling this gap is not possible if we only rely on young people going to university. Combining the skills gap with the known demographic decline means that it will become increasingly important to find new ways of supporting the existing workforce to retrain and adapt.

Technology potentially allows for a much more dispersed model of growth than was previously possible if we create the right infrastructure. And alongside the research and innovation coming out of our university labs, we need multidisciplinary teams working on the social questions that flow from this change to the world of work. We need a new model which sees the potential in dispersed growth and opportunities for all parts of our society.  This is the challenge which universities need to grasp in our time. This is our responsibility as much as it is government’s, nationally and locally.

The untapped foresight tool

The Made Smarter Review’s analysis identified under-leveraged innovation assets as one of the reasons preventing the UK from adapting to the challenge of industrial digitalisation.  Universities can respond to this challenge not just by boosting the D of R&D, but also by  feeding back into our own curriculum so that we are preparing  our students for the world that our research and innovation are creating. A new map of learning is needed.

Fundamentally, changing technologies and innovations reflect the research work in universities, albeit with contributions and exploitation by many other players given that knowledge development now happens in many different settings. Yet universities remain central and essential to the innovation ecosystem and closing the loop of our research, teaching and knowledge exchange activities could be a game-changer in how society adapts to the transformations underway.

At the University of Lincoln, we aim to draw together the three streams of universities’ core activities in a number of ways. For example, the research and innovation work of our National Centre for Food Manufacturing is in significant demand from companies with a pressing need to automate and realise the opportunities of industrial digitalisation.  The centre also provides a seamless offer of co-employer designed and driven tertiary education from Level 2 to 8 embracing apprenticeships, higher and degree apprenticeships, foundation degrees alongside batchelors, Masters and PhD qualifications, specifically designed to support career development in tech/quality, manufacturing and supply chain management as key industry occupations. Disseminating research via the centre’s students is fundamental to NCFM’s philosophy. We see our apprentices as innovation ambassadors, enthusiastically introducing new ideas and ways of working into their sponsoring businesses. Some 250 businesses support approximately 1800 employees on courses annually.

In another part of the university, in our school of engineering, first year students working in Siemens’ factories identify business challenges and work on solutions to save the company time and increase productivity. This practice is based on a notion which we call ‘student as producer’, encouraging all our undergraduate and postgraduate students to be proactive and learn through researching a topic.  We provide funding for our academics and students to work together on research projects, sometimes with industry and sometimes on a question that has come up through their curriculum.  Other universities have similar types of programmes and we need to develop these further with an understanding of the future world our students will inhabit.  This kind of approach will provide the resilience that individuals and communities need to cope with an ever-changing job market where we cannot predict what roles will exist even a few years ahead.

New curricula

The fourth industrial revolution requires universities to design new curricula for the new skills and education we need in this very changed world of work that is being created. Indeed, today’s announcement that the University of Lincoln has been awarded a HEFCE grant from the Catalyst Fund to develop a new digital skills curriculum is one response to this challenge. The project will be led by a team of academic and industry experts to align the teaching curriculum in STEM subjects at Lincoln with the current and future digital skills’ needs of specific industries, ensuring a pipeline of digitally-literate, industry-ready graduates. This development sits alongside a broader piece of work to explore what the University for the 21st Century should be, working with staff and students along with our employer and community stakeholders to design the curriculum for the future.

On our list would be a much greater understanding of the processes of innovation and creativity; of communication and design; and of the interaction between AI and people. A deep philosophical and empathetic grasp and social awareness will be crucial to new curricula and these need to be written into university study, whatever the disciplinary area. We need a sense of a university without borders, where interaction between the university community, staff and students is permeated and entwined with our wider community.

As we move into a new era with new technologies, it is time to re-draw our role as universities, to work globally, but also to act locally. With the technological changes affecting all areas of life, jobs will go and new jobs will be created; skill levels will need to alter significantly.  We need to think about those already in work and support them into this new future, not just leave them behind.  We also need graduates who, along with a confident approach to the interaction of AI and people, are also concerned about the world around them, who want to work for the betterment of society.  This will create real value for all in society for the future.

This article is part of Wonkhe’s HE Futures series. There’s more information about the series here.

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