Universities should lead the way as we adapt to the future of work

The traditional model of university education—often characterized by rote learning and passive knowledge acquisition—is rapidly becoming outdated.
The traditional model of university education—often characterized by rote learning and passive knowledge acquisition—is rapidly becoming outdated.


Indian varsities must orient themselves to produce graduates who can thrive amid rapid changes

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) recent report on the future of work has presented an undeniable truth—our job landscape is undergoing a dramatic transformation, driven by advancements in technology, digitalization and sustainability. As these changes ripple across industries, our education system, particularly universities, are confronted with the critical task of adapting to ensure they adequately prepare students for the future of work.

The WEF report notes that the fastest growing job roles are largely technology oriented. Leading the pack are artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning specialists, followed closely by sustainability specialists, business intelligence analysts and information security analysts. Universities must integrate these fast-emerging areas into their educational curricula. This integration, however, should not be limited to specialized programmes or electives. Instead, knowledge of AI, machine learning and sustainability should be woven into the fabric of all disciplines—from liberal arts and economics to business studies and beyond. This approach will ensure that all students, regardless of their chosen field, graduate with a foundational understanding of these critical areas, thereby broadening their employment prospects in a rapidly evolving job market.

Yet, a shift in curriculum is only one piece of the puzzle. Universities must also align their research efforts with the trends spotlighted in the report. This means prioritizing practical and applied research in AI, machine learning, sustainability and digital technology. By doing so, universities can contribute to society’s understanding of these fields, while also providing students with valuable hands-on experience. This blend of theoretical knowledge and practical expertise will further equip students to navigate and contribute to their respective industries effectively.

Universities must also rethink their pedagogical approaches. The traditional model of university education—often characterized by rote learning and passive knowledge acquisition—is rapidly becoming outdated. Instead, the WEF report emphasizes the importance of cognitive skills such as analytical and creative thinking, and self-efficacy skills like resilience, flexibility and agility. To foster these skills, universities must adopt student-centric pedagogical models that encourage active learning, critical thinking and problem-solving. Methods such as project-based, experiential and collaborative learning not only promote these critical skills, but also mirror the dynamic team-oriented environments that characterize modern workplaces.

The WEF report also underscores the necessity of continuous and lifelong learning. With an estimated 44% of workers’ skills expected to be disrupted within the next five years, demand for upskilling and reskilling opportunities will inevitably surge. Universities need to respond to this need. This could involve developing flexible short courses, online learning modules and certification programmes that cater to working professionals. By offering such programmes, universities can transition from being one-time educational institutions to lifelong learning partners.

This transformation is particularly significant for Indian universities, given the country’s vast youth demographic and its critical role in driving India’s economic growth. As India strides towards becoming a digital economy, the demand for skills such as AI, machine learning, digital marketing and sustainability is set to skyrocket. However, without a proactive response from universities, the nation risks a significant skill gap that could hamper our progress. Further, as India aims to become a knowledge superpower, the onus is on its universities to provide world-class education that is relevant, future-oriented and conducive to lifelong learning. In doing so, they will not only empower individual students but also contribute to the broader socio-economic development of the country.

While universities must respond to the shifting landscape of the job market, they should not lose sight of the importance of foundational skills. Despite the rapid advance of technology, ‘soft skills’ such as active listening, empathy, leadership and social influence are often what set individuals apart in the job market and enable them to navigate workplace complexities effectively. As such, universities should ensure that these skills are not sidelined but are integrated across disciplines and learning experiences, thereby producing well-rounded graduates who can thrive in various roles and circumstances.

Universities find themselves at an inflection point. The WEF report serves as a clarion call for them to evolve and meet the demands of our changing world. This is not a task to be taken lightly, nor is it one that can be put off for future consideration. The future of work is unfolding before our eyes, and it is incumbent upon universities to rise to the occasion. By embracing change in their curricula, research and pedagogical practices, and by fostering a culture of continuous learning, universities can ensure they are fulfilling their most fundamental purpose: to equip students with the skills, knowledge and attitudes they need to navigate and contribute to the world in which they will work.

Suresh Prabhu & Shobhit Mathur are, respectively, a former Union cabinet minister and vice-chancellor, Rishihood University

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