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Lifelong learning: The role of the university in a crowded and diversified landscape

article 4-01

The need for lifelong learning and continual upskilling is well recognised in modern life. Most educators and policy makers would acknowledge that the older model of pre-employment training does not fully meet current needs, due in large part to the speed at which jobs are changing and industries are being disrupted. It does not seem possible to equip workers with the skills they will need over their entire career lifespans with just the training they receive up to and including their undergraduate degrees. Some skills (e.g. communication or leadership) are more transferable and enduring than others, and these are good candidates for some kind of “core” training at undergraduate level. For disciplines with close industry applicability, however, the reality is that continual upskilling and reskilling are unavoidable.

 

One might think that universities – especially large comprehensive universities with a global brand – would be in a commanding position to lead this upskilling and reskilling project. However, they do face a number of inherent challenges. By “inherent”, I mean that these challenges are not necessarily the result of traditional practices or temporary conditions that can be changed easily; rather, they may be a result of the very nature and structure of the comprehensive global university.

CHALLENGE #1

A crowded educational landscape

The adult education market is crowded and has many competing players, including private colleges, online learning providers, corporate or trade and industry academies, and so on. Some of these providers are by definition and nature much more closely aligned with their target industries, and thus also more in tune with changing needs, than the universities. Clear examples of this would be corporate or trade and industry academies, or the programmes run by Trade Associations and Chambers.

 

CHALLENGE #2

The lack of a “for profit” advantage

A private education provider whose sole raison d’être is to cater to the educational markets has considerable advantages over universities, which have a number of other KPIs and purposes. There is nothing to stop the strategy and governance of the “for profit” educational provider being completely aligned with market trends and needs. In contrast, comprehensive global universities are in many ways public institutions, with a larger social purpose and different groups of stakeholders to answer to.

 

CHALLENGE #3

A greater focus on “core” competencies than on “targeted” competencies

Upskilling and (to a certain extent) reskilling in many ways measure “targeted” competencies – the particular and relatively narrow sets of skills required by industry changes. A mid-career engineer does not need to entirely repeat their engineering training, but may need very specific skills updates in (say) sustainable processes or the latest developments in relevant material sciences.

 

However, the engineer is also the product of a larger set of comprehensive and largely transferable “core” skills, including things like communications, teamwork, design thinking, digital competencies, human capital management and others. Universities are very well positioned to impart core competencies, which specialised educational providers cannot do. However, core competencies, while absolutely crucial to the individual over an entire career and lifespan, are harder to measure in terms of targeted industry-aligned competencies.

 

CHALLENGE #4

A lower degree of flexibility due to the “idea of a university”

Universities answer to a basket of expectations and purposes which might be summed up in John Henry Newman’s phrase (also the title of his 1852 work) “the idea of a university”. While different stakeholders may have slightly different perspectives on this idea, in general we can take it to mean that the university is a site for the generation and circulation of ideas, and for the pursuit of knowledge. Knowledge and ideas can obviously have a very applied and applicable dimension, but the “idea of a university” means that the institution can be a nursery for knowledge and ideas whose application has not yet come, or which may never have directly applied value.

 

Comprehensive universities are magnets for people who value knowledge and ideas primarily for their own sake, and perhaps secondarily for any marketable applicability they may have. This means that universities must have a “surplus value” or “ballast” of resources – faculty members, disciplines, courses, infrastructure – beyond what is needed to produce purely practical knowledge. For-purpose and just-in-time training providers, with their very different functions and purposes, have greater flexibility and responsiveness to industry needs precisely because they do not serve this “idea of a university”, and therefore do not require that “surplus” or “ballast” of resources.

We might think of university courses as potentially offering “skills+” training – not only the targeted competencies, but the adjacent experience, knowledge and perspectives that arise out of the university’s richer standing talent pool.

THE VALUE OF THE UNIVERSITY IN AN ERA OF LIFELONG LEARNING

Universities arose and established their characteristics well before Industry 4.0 and the era of continuing education. Despite this, and also despite the inherent disadvantages listed above, the structure and nature of the university does generally confer certain relative advantages in the era of lifelong learning, as the above points also suggest. Universities have a crucial advantage as recognised intellectual hubs, and consequently in the depth and breadth of the expertise, knowledge and skills they possess.

 

When it comes to research in both upstream and downstream areas, in areas with specific industry applications as well as in those with less applied benefit, universities possess a richness that specialised for-purpose educational providers cannot match. This richness of knowledge confers a distinct character to university courses (including continuing education courses); above and beyond targeted skills, university courses can be backed by a “bank” of intellectual talent and resources that reflect their status as knowledge hubs. We might think of university courses as potentially offering “skills+” training – not only the targeted competencies, but the adjacent experience, knowledge and perspectives that arise out of the university’s richer standing talent pool.

 

Universities also have the value of their brand, which is useful not only in attracting individual students as well as educational partners from both the private and public sector, but also in the role of an accreditor of learning. Universities generally offer trusted names to back whatever continuing education courses are on offer. They also tend to have wide visibility and networking; while corporations (unless they are household names) may often have to explain their core business and raison d’être, a university is a widely visible entity whose core business of education and training is a given. This means that non-university training providers have incentives to partner with universities as co-developers and co-deliverers of lifelong learning.

The Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) experience

SUSS, being a relatively young university (established in 2017 as one of Singapore’s six “autonomous universities”, but with a longer history as a private education provider prior to 2017), has been well positioned to adapt to recent trends. With a whole-of-university remit to do social good and a strong applied dimension in its research, SUSS encourages colleagues to undertake service, research collaborations, consultancies, and other forms of engagement with both private and public sector entities.

 

A holistic system of performance assessment ensures that these activities are recognised for career advancement, alongside teaching, upstream research and leadership. Despite its name SUSS does not only offer typical social sciences disciplines, but is fairly comprehensive in its offerings, which include Business, Law, Engineering, Science, as well as disciplines in the Humanities.

 

The result is that SUSS offers many of the advantages of universities (albeit with a shorter history and a brand that is still in the process of being established), while perhaps being nimbler and more responsive to industry changes than some of the older and larger comprehensive institutions. SUSS does possess the intellectual “surplus” or “ballast” to provide core, transferable skills, and also has ample expertise in a wide range of applied disciplines to offer targeted industry upskilling and reskilling. It offers the credibility of being one of the six autonomous universities under the Singapore Ministry of Education, and has clear visibility and purpose within the vast and diversified global educational landscape.

TAPPING ON INDUSTRY TALENT

SUSS has a larger ratio of associate faculty, drawn from various industries, than the traditional university. This allows the university to bring current industry practices into the classroom, interwoven with curricula designed in partnership with research-active full-time faculty. Its pedagogy, based on flexible modes of delivery appropriate to both its full-time and part-time degree studies, is suited to the learning patterns of working adult learners. This is reinforced by its Institute for Adult Learning (IAL), with its extensive research and practice in andragogy and workplace learning.

PARTNERSHIPS WITH CLIENTS AND PRIVATE SECTOR ACADEMIES

A central principle of SUSS’s lifelong learning model is the “3 Cs” of partnership: to “customise”, “co-develop” and “co-deliver” learning in collaboration not only with other universities but also with non-university partners. SUSS actively works with SMEs and corporations to develop training that is eminently suitable to a client’s needs, and often incorporates into the classroom the teaching capabilities of the client’s own management and trainers. SUSS’s applied research arm is also able to support clients (whether corporations or government-linked agencies) in doing specific business or pedagogical research to enhance the client’s operations.

CONCLUSION

Post-tertiary higher education will continue to evolve extremely rapidly, especially as the impact of AI on various 3industries (and on education itself) becomes fully realised. It is therefore incumbent upon all educational providers to anticipate and meet the needs of lifelong learning.

PROF ROBBIE GOH

Prof Robbie Got is Provost of the Singapore University of Social Sciences, and former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences of the National University of Singapore.

JUNE 2023

Issue 13

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

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About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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