About 100 years ago, higher education restructured to meet the needs of the industrial age. It has changed little since, even as the internet has transformed life. Another revolution is needed, says Cathy Davidson, to modernise universities and prepare graduates for a 21st-century working environment…

A university degree still brings material rewards. In the US, a graduate today earns 65 per cent more than someone with a high school diploma; a master’s degree offers a premium of 105 per cent. In the UK, the government claims that graduates can expect to better the lifetime net earnings of non-graduates by at least £100,000.

But how much longer will this be the case if graduates need the most basic retraining before they are fit for the workplace? Tuition fees keep rising; graduates leave saddled with debt; the job market is terrible; and students aren’t being prepared for those jobs that do exist. How did it come to this? And what can we do about it? …

We continue to prepare students as if their career path were linear, definite, specialised and predictable. We are making them experts in obsolescence. We are doing a good job of training them for the 20th century. ….

With the internet and the web, work and information flow in an almost opposite manner of the linear assembly line or “line” vertical management forms. No foreman or manager or CEO is at the controls decreeing which information will go where. All information is bundled at the end point (my computer or, at most, my server), broadcast by me out on to the web, and then capable of being captured by any other end point (your computer) without the intervention or involvement of a broadcaster, publisher, editor, teacher, manager, company, foreman or CEO.

The free flow of information on the internet and the web has an enormous impact on how we work, communicate and interact, how we gather as citizens and global observers, how we arrange and disrupt organisations, on levels small or large. We may or may not like it, but workflow in the digital age is a constant unsorted bombardment that defies old divisions of labour. We receive urgent memos at a rate never imagined before and from anyone in the corporation, whether they are on the next floor or at the partner office in Bangalore. And we receive those on the same computer that delivers us banana bread recipes from Aunt Bessie and “lolcats”. We may still work in a cubicle (although even that is changing) but all the world’s diversions exist at our fingertips, one mouse click away.

Think about the skills this environment requires. This end-to-end principle requires new sorting and attentional skills, collaborative skills, judgement and logical skills, synthesising and analytical abilities, critical and creative skills, qualitative and quantitative skills, all together, with few lines between them. These are sometimes called “21st-century literacies”, a range of new interpersonal, synthesising, organising and communication skills that companies insist today’s graduates lack….

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