| 5 minute read

Bridging the gap: Reimagining higher education for 21st century skills

Tasha Day
Cristina Riesen, Diana El-Azar, Roberta Malee Bassett and Balzhan Orazbayeva during their keynote panel at the 2023 UIIN Conference

The following insights come from the panel discussion Partnering and the Future of Education, highlighting the key takeaways from Cristina Riesen (Educreators Foundation), Roberta Malee Bassett (The Word Bank) and Diana El-Azar (Minerva Project). Our panellists explored whether higher education is currently fit for purpose, and discussed how to equip individuals with the necessary skills to meet the demands of the 21st century.

This article is the first of a two-part series. Stay tuned for the upcoming second installation.

Higher education: fit for purpose?

Higher education is facing great challenges; many students come out of university uninspired, with skills that do not match the current needs of the workforce. Our panellists highlighted the importance of reimagining education, whether through transforming existing higher education institutions or establishing new ones that prioritise interdisciplinary approaches, active and experiential learning, and technology-driven solutions.

However, it’s not necessarily that universities are outright failing their students. Rather, they may struggle to effectively communicate the skills they provide and the significance of these skills”

The result is graduates who lack confidence and are unable to accurately name their skills and sell themselves in the job market. Therefore, universities also need to better articulate the skills that they are building in their students. It is clear that revolutionary change is necessary, but in the meantime, universities should do their best to help students to name and feel confident in the transferable skills they gain through education.

Building durable skills

The skills that students need to thrive are subject to change. Due to environmental and technological advancements, the half-life of skills is rapidly decreasing. Therefore, we have the challenge of teaching students skills durable enough so they are qualified for today’s job market and tomorrow’s opportunities. In general, there is a gap between the skills that employers are looking for (e.g., critical thinking, creative thinking, tech literacy) and what people are training in (e.g., programming and AI).

There is a great opportunity for universities to fill these gaps, train these skills and then apply them through internships, partnerships, and entrepreneurship opportunities”

The skills of agency and being comfortable with the unknown are arguably the most important skills of our time. If we don’t have exposure to foresight and future thinking, we tend to project our fears onto the future. If people act from a place of confidence, agency, and community, then solutions for the future will emerge naturally. When an individual feels empowered they can take on any challenge. We have an opportunity here to integrate these core future-proof skills into our university curriculums.

It is essential that we send out the message that we are designers of our lives, our societies and our futures, and train for that agency” – Cristina Riesen

We need to figure out how we can make space for these learning pathways which prepare students for current labour market trends as well as championing durable skills such as agency and critical thinking. But this is not the sole task of one sector – policy, curriculum and the labour market must come together to solve this. We need to break down these silos in order to innovate for a future-proof and future-building education system.

Cristina Riesen, Diana El-Azar, Roberta Malee Bassett and Balzhan Orazbayeva during their keynote panel at the 2023 UIIN Conference
Cristina Riesen, Diana El-Azar, Roberta Malee Bassett and Balzhan Orazbayeva during their keynote panel at the 2023 UIIN Conference

The future is unknown, but it can be co-created

What steps can we take to begin meaningful conversations about creating a desirable future for an education system that empowers individuals? As citizens of this world and as creators of education, we can actually do something about building this desirable future. We need to train for agency and resilience and understand that building this future is not about perfection and best practice but it is about practicing and experimenting. We need to empower ourselves to move away from trying to predict the future, to building it, together.

It’s not about predicting the future of education, it’s about shaping the future that we want to have” – Cristina Riesen

Creating a future-proof education system

In summary, universities need to better articulate the skills they impart and bridge the gap between employer expectations and the training provided. It is important that our universities integrate durable skills such as agency and resilience into their curricular. Furthermore, our panellists urge a shift from predicting the future, to actively co-creating a desirable future for education. By fostering agency, resilience, and experimentation, we can work together to build a future-proof and empowering education system.

If you enjoyed this article check out our podcast episode The Future of Universities – Future-Proofing Higher Education Institutions


Tasha Day (author) is a Project officer at UIIN, where she undertakes research activities and creates content on a wide variety of topics including entrepreneurship education, sustainability and research valorisation.

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