Universities must prepare students for survival
One of the most important roles of higher education institutions is to prepare students for their future careers.
It was General Maxwell Thurman of the United States Army War College who, in the early 1990s, first coined the acronym VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – to characterize the challenges of operating in an environment increasingly globalized.
Judging by recent events, including the global Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we can only expect students entering college today to graduate in a world much more turbulent than ever.
So how can institutions better prepare students for a VUCA-filled future?
By producing more resilient graduates, we can learn parallel lessons from the resilience some companies have shown to resist, and even thrive, during the pandemic.
Lesson 1: Developing mental agility
The most successful companies are flexible and able to adapt quickly to change.
Mental agility refers to a person’s ability to think about a problem in different ways and adapt as new information emerges.
In a VUCA world, there are rarely right or wrong answers, and we often have to analyze complex situations and make decisions based on incomplete information.
We can help students develop their mental agility by exposing them to “perverse” problems and getting them used to inherently vague and fluid situations.
Lesson 2: Develop problem-solving skills
“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime,” as the saying goes.
The challenges students will face one year after graduation will undoubtedly be different from those they will face 10 years later.
Universities therefore need to equip students with transferable problem-solving skills.
Although I’m sure most universities would claim that they already do this, more could be done, for example, by explicitly integrating modules such as creative thinking and design thinking into the curriculum.
Lesson 3: Teaching Principles
Today, there is a lot of emphasis on applied skills. The information technology sector is a prime example, where there is a strong demand for skilled people in particular technology applications.
While this meets immediate industry demand, technological change is rapid and these applied skills tend to quickly become obsolete.
Universities should therefore focus their efforts on teaching principles that promote the assimilation of applied skills.
For example, a computer programming module should help students understand coding principles, which will allow them to master many different programming languages rather than just one specific language.
Lesson 4: Building Strength
During the pandemic, students have faced a host of disruptions, including the shift to online learning, working in virtual shifts, physical isolation, and remote learning in a different setting.
The reality is that the workplace will probably not be so different anymore.
So, while the pandemic has been extremely inconvenient, it has also helped develop courage and perseverance – essential qualities for building resilience.
Universities should consider retaining elements of online learning, virtual teams, and off-campus learning, and integrating them into the learning experience in ways that foster greater resilience in students.
Lesson 5: Manage stress
Resilient individuals are better able to handle stress.
If students learn how to manage stress in college, they will be better equipped to do so when they graduate and enter the workforce.
Unfortunately, universities tend to react when it is too late, for example, when a student suffers from poor academic performance or, even worse, when a student drops out completely. Instead, universities can take a proactive approach. For example, one of the most common causes of stress is poor time management. Workshops on this and related topics can therefore be offered to students as part of their studies.
Students may also be encouraged to engage in sports and other non-academic activities as a way to relieve stress.
Lesson 6: Diversifying the University Experience Resilience develops through diverse experiences that expose and challenge individuals in different ways.
Although it is common for universities to offer internships and exchange programs with foreign partner universities, the participation rate is often low.
At my own institution, only a small proportion of students undertake the mobility option on our UK campus; many, however, undertake internships as part of their undergraduate studies.
Such off-campus experiences could be made mandatory as a condition of graduation, taking students outside of their campus-centric comfort zones and providing the much-needed diversity of experiences that will greatly contribute to their personal development.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that the world in which students are graduating is more VUCA than ever before, and that resilience will be an essential part of graduate success, if not survival. Universities have a key role to play and in doing so they should look beyond narrow-minded academic learning towards broader development outcomes.
Professor Wing Lam is Provost and Chief Executive of the University of Reading Malaysia, an international campus of the University of Reading, UK. He has held various academic positions in Malaysia, Singapore and the UK. Professor Wing received his PhD in Computer Science from King’s College London in 1994. He has published over 80 peer-reviewed articles and reviews. His current research areas include technology and innovation. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.