Are we giving students the right skills for the future?

Professor Sa’ad Medhat, CEO at The Innovation Institute (NEF), explores the issues

Education is constantly in the headlines. Concerns about Maths and English levels in school-leavers – or of A-level grades generally – are well aired. But I’d like to take the debate about the future of education beyond this – because it distracts us from a more urgent question.

Are we equipping students with the right skills for the future?

The short answer is NO.

Last year NEF did a piece of policy work called ‘Inventing the Future – transforming STEM economies’ supported by Matchtech – the UK’s largest engineering recruitment company – where we had a think tank meetings and carried out surveys. We talked to more than 100 leading STEM-based organisations about their current and future skills requirements.

In our survey, a mere 16% of companies said that their skills needs were being fully met. At the other end of the spectrum, 32% per cent said that finding people with the right skills was a serious struggle.

This is the current situation. But what about if we look forward ten, five or just two years? What kind of competencies will students need then? The answers were eye-opening.

Wherever you look the ground is shifting very fast: 3D printing is transforming manufacturing and prototype development, cloud computing, the internet of things and big data are permeating most businesses. Then there’s robotics, nanotechnology, smart materials, genomics. In some sectors, workers are updating their skills monthly or even weekly to keep up.

And new jobs are being invented all the time; such as big data architect, drone technologist and bio-mimetic engineer.

We are living through a golden technological age – but if we try to predict the future, the cards are unclear. Technologies are morphing into new things. For example, will today’s current obsession with app development still be in vogue five years down the line? No one can be sure. That’s how fast things are moving.

It isn’t just technology-based roles that will be turned on their heads.  The professions could also face major upheaval. For example, diagnostic software is predicted to replace traditional roles in the medical and legal professions. Even arts graduates will need higher functioning levels of maths to thrive in new types of digital media jobs.

Companies mistakenly believe that innovation should be confined to R&D departments – but if we empower the workforce to innovate beyond these confines, the effect could be transformative on the UK economy as a whole.

So, merely focusing on the skills shortages today, or even adapting to current trends, I would argue, is not only extremely short-sighted, it is potentially catastrophic. The question that we have to ask is how can we prepare students for a future that is impossible to predict?

Quite simply, we have to raise competencies at every level of education: in further and higher education as well as schools. Our teaching and learning environments, our interactions, and our fundamental assumptions must change.

We also need to create a new breed of worker – NEF calls them Technologists of the Future. 

You may be wondering what a technologist of the future would look like. Well, she, and I say she because attracting a more diverse workforce is also essential –will be adaptable, with the confidence to embrace new ways of working; she’ll have an entrepreneurial mind-set, able to find new applications for technology; she’ll have high functioning skills in applying logic, working with design and collaborating with her co-workers. She will also have a good level of dexterity– she’ll be able to make things and self-manage.

Perhaps most crucially – she won’t be tied to one sector, but will be able to move in, and, out of different industries. She will be able to operate around a variety of disciplines in response to changing economic demand.

So how can the learning environment enable this change to take place?

We have to recognise two things: that students learn things at different rates, and that technology is already rewiring the way their brains work.

Learning should be student led;– rather than passive absorbers of knowledge, students become leaders and activators.

Courses should be flexible enough for students to go at their own pace – in this way the smartest students will not be held back, and the others, learning at a slower rate, can be sure that their skills are deeply embedded – they haven’t been superficially taught to pass exams.

What about the tutors or lecturers? Their role is to facilitate, helping students make their own discoveries. And learning should not be confined to the traditional academic silos – but become cross curricula, with several disciplines being applied to one project at once.

You can see some of this already happening in top institutions abroad. At MIT in the USA, they’ve been ripping out the lecture halls – replacing them with eight person conference tables. Instead of sitting passively through a long lecture, these students now watch a ten minute video before school – they then spend their time in class debating and testing their understanding.

Elsewhere, students in the USA get real datasets from NASA to experiment and play with. NovaLabs, a unique learning collaboration between NASA, Lockheed Martin and other educational charities enables incredible learning resources to be provided, and gives a narrative to highly complex STEM areas such as RNA, cybersecurity, energy, climate and space. Why isn’t there more of this type of learning available in the UK?

It’s an exhilarating vision – perhaps terrifying for some. But to achieve this we need long term support from industry and government, and a shakeup of the exam and assessment system. It’s time to wipe away all our assumptions.

Technology is changing so fast, we can no longer afford to fix our curricula. So educational assessment needs to become less prescriptive – more based on outcomes.

Industry representatives should sit on governance boards, guiding the curricula (which should be adapting on a yearly basis). Companies could even run courses or modules.

And lecturers should be frequently seconded to industry, allowing them to update their knowledge and skills.

There’s also a strong case for vocational colleges to carry out research and development for local businesses. One college we’re working with in Berkshire has become a provider of Rapid Food Testing – testing for allergens and contamination for the food industry, and developing new products.

This is a win-win: companies can commission genuinely helpful research into their products, and students develop skills that are in high demand locally.

At a regional level LEPs, councils and chambers of commerce should work with businesses and educators to set a skills strategy. An important part of this work will be ‘horizon scanning’ for new trends and sharing this knowledge with educators.

Now let’s look at the UK as a whole. How can Government facilitate this change? I can’t stress enough, that if this is to work, we need to remove politics from the discussion. The approach has to be long-term and unaffected by the five-yearly political cycle.

So, I advocate the setting up of an Independent Educational Board that can establish an Educational Charter. This would set out national guiding principles for colleges and universities that could be interpreted at regional level.

We should also re-examine assessment models, which are highly prescriptive, linking ability to age.

Our current system essentially dates back to Edwardian times. And it’s straightjacketing students, holding the brightest back from fulfilling their full potential.

Government could further invigorate the process by extending tax credits towards STEM skills development and related supporting infrastructure.

You might think that this is fantasy, but I’m pleased to tell you that some changes are already underway.

We are working with a number of progressive institutions to cluster their STEM provision and establish innovation hubs to drive effective collaboration with business and industry, carry out research (for example in the supply chain of the automotive industry), and align the development of student pipeline into and out of their institutions, thus operating as regional polytechnic.

Perhaps, I should explain that this doesn’t involve building new buildings – all the colleges will stay put, but will operate under a different organisational structure, as a platform that enables and connects the pieces intelligently.

This is an exciting step for these colleges, but I would argue that it’s also an essential one for their long-term survival, as well as the prosperity of their regions.

It’s my hope that this model can be replicated across the country – building differentiated clusters of expertise, and creating a steady pipeline of skills to support local economies.

Admittedly, it’s not going to be an easy transition. But if we really want to help the next generation of students, and keep the UK at the forefront of innovation, we can’t afford to dither any longer.

Prof Sa’ad Medhat founded NEF: The Innovation Institute in 2004, following a string of leading positions in industry and academia. Former roles include Vice President of Future Media Plc, IBM Professor of Concurrent Engineering (Worldwide), Founding Principal and Chief Executive of the University of Dubai and Director of the Engineering and Technology Board.

NEF is an independent professional body that focuses on professionalising innovation to drive growth and performance excellence in business education and government. For more information visit