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BLOG: Building the workforce of the future: embracing change in tertiary education

09 July 2024

Dr Vikki Smith, Executive Director – Education and Standards at the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), shares her reflections on the key themes discussed at The College Alliance Network Meeting on 11 June 2024, in Cork, Ireland.

Creating a joined-up tertiary education system that integrates Further Education (FE) and Skills with higher education to deliver maximum impact and benefit for our learners can only be positive. The key question is how to approach this in a way that best addresses current challenges including evolving technology, changing demographics, and a difficult economic outlook.

Discussing this question and its connected themes was on the agenda at The College Alliance Network Meeting on 11 June, in Cork, Ireland. Leaders from across further and higher education came together to discuss the essential role of tertiary education in shaping the future workforce – and the impact of ‘megatrends’ such as artificial intelligence, micro qualifications, and sustainability. Here, I look at some of the main themes we discussed.

Artificial Intelligence and emerging technologies

There is no doubt about Artificial Intelligence (AI) impacting the job market in terms of the nature of skills that will be in demand, and how frequently demand for those skills will change as technology continues to evolve.

In Cork, we discussed how we might adapt curricula to incorporate AI and other emerging technologies so that the future workforce is equipped with the skills needed to make use of these technologies – and understand their associated risks as well as opportunities.

Micro qualifications and lifelong learning

We are seeing ever-more focus on lifelong learning, which is vital in ensuring our workforce remains dynamic and responsive to change. The challenge here is to ensure qualifications remain relevant and aligned with industry needs. Flexible, bite-sized learning opportunities can allow individuals to upskill and reskill efficiently, contributing to continuous learning and a more dynamic workforce.

Sustainability and green skills

Sustainability is no longer the preserve of one sector, nor one part of the curriculum – it concerns us all. We need to embed sustainability and green skills across curricula to prepare students for the future and for a green economy. Every sector needs to be supported to develop environmentally sustainable practices, and a workforce that is trained in sustainability and green skills is required to support those efforts.

Change and resilience

We know that we live in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. So how can we build resilience and responsiveness into our institutions to cope with constant economic, social, and technological change?

In our discussions on this theme, Cork's openness and diverse workforce were highlighted as major economic advantages. We discussed the correlation between workforce diversity, economic performance, and market recovery and how these themes are interconnected and mutually reinforcing, as noted in the Education and Training Foundation's (ETF’s) recently published Changing systems of change report.

Trust and collaboration

Underpinning our endeavours to bring greater integration, cooperation, responsiveness, and resilience to the education sector must be a foundation of trust. ETF’s Changing systems of change report explores the importance of the trust feedback loop. When there is trust between parties, this leads to open behaviour. As a result of that openness, there are fewer unknowns and this means there is less concern or doubt about all parties' behaviours. This leads to stronger ties and increased confidence and so the positive cycle continues.

Building trust across our education organisations and institutions will foster collaboration and support effective change towards a cohesive system where institutions work together towards a shared vision. Articulating and agreeing that shared purpose and vision is important in giving us a ‘north star’ to work towards.

What role does Further Education and Skills play?

The FE and Skills sector is essential for responding to the current economic climate and facilitating recovery. To address these challenges effectively, the sector requires a significant pace of change and substantial investment in people and employers, particularly SMEs. A systems view, as outlined in ETF’s report, is necessary to bring cohesion, enhance capacity for change, and promote growth. Networking and collaboration are central to building this capacity and ensuring that education plays a key role in addressing social justice and societal challenges.

Facilitating system change

As a sponsor of the Association of Colleges’ (AoC) College Alliance, the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) is committed to ensuring that education contributes significantly to societal wellbeing, fostering social mobility and economic prosperity. ETF unites people, ideas, research, and best practices from across FE and Skills to build a sustainable future for the sector, those working within it and the learners who benefit from it.

As ETF’s Changing systems of change report highlights, trust and constructive challenge are vital enabling factors for the sustainability and resilience of the FE and Skills sector. Institutional relationships must endure even as personnel change, and a place-based approach is vital for integrating the system at large.

Looking ahead

The College Alliance Network Meeting gave us a platform for discussing the emerging skills needs of the future and the importance of cross-border collaboration. By fostering ambition and working together towards a common vision, we can leverage the strengths and uniqueness of our educational systems to build a resilient, adaptable, and sustainable future.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The College Alliance