Thirty years ago, a university education was the exception rather than the rule. Now, it's pretty much essential. At the same time, however, there's evidence that many universities aren't keeping up with changes in the world of work.
To power the fourth industrial revolution, employers need workers with strong technological skills, as well as the resilience and resourcefulness to tackle unfamiliar problems. According to research by Wiley Education Services, the global shortage of highly skilled workers was expected to reach around 35-40 million in 2020 1. That's almost 5 cities the size of London.
Research by UCAS shows that there is an increased emphasis 2 on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) degrees, while the British Council has pointed to a corresponding decline 3 in the past few years in the take-up of humanities subjects such as English, history and modern languages. Governments in countries like Britain have also been investing 4 in improving vocational courses, which have long been unfairly stigmatised as a second-rate alternative to university.
But is higher education really the source of this gap? What if it begins to open up much earlier, in the transition between school and university?
University of Exeter research 5 has shown that some qualifications leave young people unprepared for higher education. School exams are stressful, but they are infrequent. Students often take just one or two exams after a 2-year course. At university, they will be examined more frequently, not to mention the fact that, especially in lab-based subjects, they will be forced to work more collaboratively, too. If students spend all their time at university catching up with these new skills, then it's no wonder that they don't have the time to develop new ones for future employment.
What, then, are schools doing to ease this transition and prepare their pupils for higher education?
With more freedom over how they structure their curriculum, independent schools are better placed than most to give their students the extra help they need. At Caterham School in Surrey, Southwest London, for instance, all sixth-formers take the school's Readiness course to give them experience of university-style teaching, with seminars and distance learning. The students are also encouraged to be more independent in their work and to do more research into their subjects than their exams require.
This process doesn't just start in the sixth form. Caterham's Learning to Learn programme operates throughout the school, teaching students skills like metacognition, self-organisation and note-taking to enable them to be more autonomous in their learning.
At West Sussex prep school Handcross Park in southern England, students in Years 3 to 8 have timetabled sessions to teach them team-building and higher-level problem-solving skills.
This allow[s] the children to understand how to work collaboratively to achieve a goal and to learn to listen.
Head Richard Brown says that the most important aspect of these sessions isn't, in fact, the didactic, teacher-led explanations of concepts and terms, but rather the time given up to the students for reflection and discussion of what has been learned.
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Independent schools have also been leading the charge in preparing students for vocational courses. Westonbirt School in Gloucestershire, Southwest England, is one of many UK schools that have adopted Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) qualifications to give pupils a different route into higher education. Head Natasha Dangerfield initially had to convince parents that this vocational approach was as worthwhile as A-levels.
"Getting this past parents was hard," she says, "but many schools have managed this with great success and children benefit from developing their skills and their knowledge base in a very different way." She goes on to point out that companies like Apple, Google and IBM no longer expect all applicants to be graduates, and that Dyson has founded its own technical institute to train school-leavers for jobs in engineering.
All this talk of skills and qualifications, however, risks ignoring another aspect of higher education that students may find difficult. As well as learning to work independently, young people need to learn to live independently, too.
Emma Goldsmith, head of prep school Winchester House in Northamptonshire, argues that the foundations for this character preparation need to be laid early in a child's education.
Kindness, the way you treat other people – that is going to have an effect on their life post-school. They've got to start building those in right from the very beginning.
Strong co-curricular provision can help enrich young peoples' sense of themselves and their strengths, while at the same time encouraging them to work alongside other people. Community service is one increasingly popular way of teaching otherwise privileged students to work with people from a variety of backgrounds.
At Winchester House, Goldsmith has pioneered a correspondence scheme with local care homes to encourage students to offer support to vulnerable older people. In addition, the school runs a dementia-friendly choir, which stretches students' musical abilities while also teaching them to work with people in very different life circumstances from their own.
Leaving school for higher education can be daunting, but schools are using their alumni networks in higher education to help new arrivals settle in, as well as to provide school-leavers with work experience and internships.
These alumni networks have traditionally been the preserve of boys' schools. Now, all-girls schools are mobilising alumnae support to provide their students with role models in all professional fields and to encourage them to consider a range of subjects for higher education, including the historically disproportionately male STEM subjects.
Independent schools are realising that the key to narrowing the skills gap may well be better preparation earlier on. This ensures that young people arrive at their higher-education destinations ready to take advantage of all the opportunities presented to them. There's no right way of doing this, but independent schools are developing new and innovative forms of teaching to cushion the transition between school and higher education.
Written by Talk Education
Talk Education is a dynamic digital guide to the world's best schools, produced by a team with a combined total of over 175 years' experience in this sector - unlocking the secrets of independent education for a global audience. Read reviews of the world's best schools, compare data on your favourites and find the perfect school for your child.
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1 Addressing the Skills Gap with Alternative Higher Education Options, Wiley Education Services. 2020.
2 Students Turn to Technology with University Choices, UCAS. Feb. 2021.
3 The British Academy UCAS (2017) End of Cycle Report - Historical and Philosophical Studies.
4 Vocational qualifications: raising the bar, Relocate Global.
5 More work needed to help students make successful transitions from revised A-levels to university, University of Exeter.