Students and skills: Doing Things Different and Better

Alastair Sim, Director of Universities Scotland has shared his thoughts on the skills landscape and the importance of the skills students learn while at university.

Let’s re-set the skills policy agenda by appreciating students’ diversity and ambitions, and the breadth of  universities’ contribution to that.

I get huge inspiration from meeting students as I visit universities. It’s a central part of what makes this job worthwhile – meeting people from diverse backgrounds at diverse stages of their life who have chosen higher education as the way to build a better future.

It’s brilliant to see the ways in which students are learning the things that will set them up for success.  Some of it is very obviously career related – the student nurses working with bionic bodies to learn how to care for patients, or the engineering students using 3D visualisation to design carbon capture technology below the  North Sea. Some of it is less obviously connected, but across the curriculum universities make sure that work-related learning is integral to students’ learning. And the way students learn has changed so that it is a better preparation for the way we work. For instance, those of us who remember university libraries as places of solitary reading are surprised when we see them now as lively hubs of collaborative learning, as students work on shared projects and develop the collaboration skills they will need throughout their careers.

The opportunities  ahead of university undergraduates are many and varied. Some of them will go straight into professions where they can directly apply their subject specialisms. Others will go into  – or create – roles or new enterprises where the broad attributes they develop at university will equip them for success.  All of them will be called on to demonstrate these attributes – creativity, analytical ability, team-working, digital literacy, entrepreneurship and the other broad attributes that are at the foundation of a successful professional life. These attributes are integral to an undergraduate degree from any Scottish university, built on top of the subject-specific knowledge base they have acquired in say, maths, computing science, economics, history or a language degree.

We know from employers big and small that it’s this set of meta skills or higher-order cognitive skills that they are looking for to help integrate people successfully into their organisations. Most graduates are now likely to change career several times in their lives, in jobs that may look very different from now or even in careers that do not currently exist. Many of these graduates will come back to university to develop new capacities through postgraduate study or short upskilling and reskilling courses. All of them will carry with them the attributes they developed through a university education.

And that’s how our economy will develop – by having bright, skilled and motivated people who are thinking about how to do things differently and better.  The economy, and society, can only be as good as our people and the attributes and skills they bring to it.

So, as we look towards a changed political landscape let’s step away from what can sometimes seem to be a reductive discussion about education as a conveyor belt producing people with specific skills to fit specific job vacancies. Let’s recognise that it will be the knowledge, attributes and ambitions of our people that will shape our economy and society – and let’s celebrate universities’ contribution to developing the great people who will build a better future.