Universities across the globe are facing tremendous pressure to evolve and innovate to meet the demands of today’s job market. Not only are they tasked with optimizing operations and academic programs with the latest technologies, but they also must fight back against a growing cultural cynicism about the value a degree provides students in the real-world.

Related content: Using workforce data to improve student outcomes

The challenges of student loan debt, scarce public financing and a hyper-competitive job market in a digital economy are making prospective students ask tough questions about the return on investment of higher education.

Upending decades of cultural emphasis on the value of higher education in the U.S., many of today’s hottest companies like Netflix, Google and Apple no longer require a college degree for employment. Top CEOs are speaking out and challenging universities to make programs that are relevant to industry or encouraging drastic reimagining of course delivery to drive vocational relevance.

According to Gartner, Inc., a research and advisory company, “analyses about the future of work focus on the impact of automation, the need to work alongside smart machines, the gig economy and the emergence of new types of careers.” Gartner suggests that “a shift toward more skills-based and practical training and a shift toward lifelong learning will be necessary.”

The opportunity now for universities is to develop agile curriculums better aligned with the requirements of business and industry. Providing students with workplace experience is a critical piece of this equation.

How higher education can support the future of work

In the U.S. today, 40 percent of college graduates are taking positions that don’t require a degree after graduation, and 20 percent of those students continue to struggle with underemployment a decade later. In response, America’s large research institutions are beginning to address work readiness concerns by taking on the responsibility of workforce development and fostering entrepreneurship.

Microcredentials, soft-skill badges, and employer curriculum partnerships are a few of the latest innovations universities are testing to improve student preparedness for today’s workplace. Cooperative education and work-integrated learning are also growing in importance because they provide the practical experience necessary to prepare students for the world of work. This trend is increasing at such a rate that, for the first-time, career placement software entered the Gartner Top 10 Strategic Technologies Impacting Higher Education in 2019 report.

University of Texas Arlington nursing program

In the U.S., there are many strong examples of universities integrating on-the-job training and competency-based learning for professions with clinical requirements like nursing, medicine, and social work. However, the task has been daunting for many healthcare educators who have had to develop and manage complex work placement programs that rely on manual data entry, paperwork and coordination with employers to ensure students are placed in appropriate work training opportunities. The process is often inaccurate, error prone, time consuming, poorly organized and reported and lacking the benefit of internal coordination

In 2017, the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) deployed clinical placement software within its graduate nursing program and saw dramatic improvements in expediting clinical placement, eliminating cost, and generating data to enrich clinical education.

Within three months of implementation, the program had facilitated more than 800 student placements and allowed clinical placement staff to proactively clear students for clinical with an additional three months between the usual clearance date and the clinical start date.

According to Dr. Lauren St. John, associate chair for Clinical Education and Clinical Assistant Professor at UTA, the rapid growth of the UTA Nursing program has been underpinned by the capacity of the software to scale to meet the increase in clinical placements from 2,500 in the 2017-2018 year to a projected 5,000 in the 2019-2020 year. The university was able to eliminate four legacy systems and corresponding license fees with the cost of the new software only being about 80 percent of the per student cost of one of those legacy systems.

International work placement

In the United Kingdom and Australia, higher education institutions are improving post-graduation employment trends by integrating on-the-job training as a requirement to obtain a degree across several disciplines and offering comprehensive job placement support during their academic experience. At Nottingham Trent University in the UK, for example, as early as 2012 they began to recognize the importance of cooperative learning on student outcomes. In 2017, they set the ambitious goal of helping 90 percent of students complete some form of work experience upon graduation by 2020.

In the 2017 Leavers of Higher Education survey, students reported that six months post-graduation, 95.6 percent of students entered work or further studies and 72 percent gained employment at a professional or managerial level. During this period, NTU also saw significant improvement in rankings, rising from 73rd in 2014 to 12th for 2020 based on the widely respected annual University ranking report by The Guardian newspaper known as the ‘University League Tables’.

Information technology to support institutional transformation

U.S. universities have only scraped the surface in using expanding functionality in these systems to support institutional transformation and student empowerment and success. For those that have, they recognize the value of integrating any experience where the student is leaving the university/institution to put their skills into practice and tracking, monitoring and reporting on that experience for the betterment of the student and program outcomes. This data can help universities envision new designs for courses and degree programs and ensure students are armed with the global currency employers are looking for–competency-based certifications, job skills, and direct work experience in the field of study.

Soon, higher-ed institutions will be judged not only by their history, professors, or courses, but by how they prepare students for the world of work and help ensure they are successful in their careers. Universities must prepare for this growth in workplace learning, which means being able to manage the logistical challenge of connecting thousands of students with thousands of different workplace opportunities and utilizing those partnerships to better align their teaching to the requirements of the workplace. In an innovation economy where technology is advancing more quickly than we can keep up with, universities must embrace an innovation mindset to stay relevant to employers and competitive to students.

About the Author:

Guthrie White is the CEO of Quantum Information Technology, the developer and vendor of the InPlace Software product suite. As a founding partner in the business, White drove the development of the InPlace application as a global software product servicing universities across the world. After 30 years in the IT industry designing, developing and deploying innovative, business transformational IT solutions, Guthrie sees InPlace as core to the next wave of growth for QuantumIT and a transformational opportunity for the education industry.


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