Skills for the future

Development Monthly | #2 October 2021 |Skills for the future

Dame Shirley Pearce, DBE

AUA Honorary President

Dame Shirley Pearce has held senior executive and non-executive roles in higher education, health and policing with experience of both the public and private sectors.
She is currently, an independent member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL), a non executive director of the Unite Group, a member of the Higher Education Quality Assurance Panel for the Ministry of Education in Singapore, a Trustee for the Royal Anniversary Trust and a member of the advisory board of HCA UK.

The world in which we work is changing all the time. This continuous change is having an impact on the skills we need in all parts of the HE workforce. It should influence the way we educate new staff and the way we support the continuous professional development of everyone in HE. The skills needed for any job have always been changing and developing. But right now, it seems that the rate of change is becoming so great we should intensify our efforts to ensure we don’t expect new skills to be assimilated by ‘learning on the job’. If we fail to develop and deliver relevant educational opportunities we risk lagging behind international competitors. We might also risk lagging behind other sectors and failing to attract the best people into the HE roles. 

Some of the changes in our working worlds may be challenging to assimilate and deliver but are essentially, largely predictable. They include:  

  • the ever growing impact of digital innovations including AI on all aspects of the delivery of HE and its management;  
  • the need to respond to climate change and impact that the delivering reductions in carbon emissions will have on all our roles, or 
  • the increasing role of automation and its impact on human performance.  

Many of these future demands are considered as part of the AUA Autumn Conference and the AUA is working to be able to provide support to members in understanding these changes ahead. We all have a part to play in getting this right. On the one hand, AUA has a responsibility to learn how best to keep members up to date about the impact of these changes.  On the other hand, HE professionals themselves need to work out how their roles might develop to maximise the powerful benefits of the changes. We need to be open to the possibility of radical change in areas that many of us are only just beginning to understand. There has, in the past, been concern that roles may become redundant. But do they really become redundant or is it just that roles change, and it is only if we can’t change ourselves that we risk losing a role? We need to work together to prevent this happening. 

Given that HE professionals are drawn from a range of different professional groups there may also be specific additional demands from external professional bodies for those who want to maintain their professional accreditation. I think the opportunity to keep up to date in a way that allows you to move across sectors is important. It should be in HE’s advantage, as well as the individual’s benefit, to gain experience in other settings. Perhaps we should provide greater opportunities for staff to get work experience in other sectors where developments relevant to their roles are more advanced? And perhaps we should not be unduly worried about people leaving HE to work in other sectors, where they learn other ways of addressing these changes, as long as they return!  We need to remain attractive as a working environment so that people do return, hopefully with new skills and experience that benefit HE. We should not be a ‘sealed system’ with the risk that we become slower to adopt new best practices. Likewise, we should make sure we listen to our academics, who are often at the forefront of changing technologies, to help us keep ahead of the game.  

Whilst some of the changes ahead for which we need to learn new skills can be anticipated, some will be unpredictable. Virologists may have made predictions about a pandemic but governments and societies across the world were in no way ready for covid and its impact. We have learnt through the pandemic that unpredictable events on this scale demand some core skills and qualities which may not have been adequately recognised in the past. These include:  

  • flexibility,  
  • personal and professional resilience, 
  • the ability to assimilate new and complex information speedily and accurately 
  • to listen to all members of the team and, depending on the nature of the role,  
  • the ability to make decisions and take carefully calculated risks, rapidly in the face of uncertainty. 

There is nothing new about these skills which are needed by leaders in all settings, but they were accentuated in the rapidly changing and continuously uncertain environment created by covid. They are needed in all crisis management and perhaps should be added to the list of skills for the future.   

So, some of the skills needed for the future may be different from those we have needed in the past, but many will be just the same.  As we grasp the future we must raise the profile of the professional skills that endure and which are core to our success. 

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