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Reimagining the interface of higher education & business

Updated: Apr 30

These summary insights are from the roundtable on the theme: Tackling the Sustainability Skills Gap: Reimagining the interface between higher education & business. Learn more about our roundtable series here.

Students need access to the “big six” experiences to truly thrive

College graduates who experience experiential learning and support while enrolled have increased odds of engagement and wellbeing upon graduation, according to research conducted by Gallup (and presented by roundtable provocateur Stephanie Marken, Senior Partner, Global Analytics Division at Gallup).

These experiences fall into six categories:

  1. At least one professor who cares about the student as an individual

  2. At least one professor who made them feel excited about learning

  3. At least one mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams

  4. The opportunity to apply their classroom learning in a practical setting

  5. Access to longer-term projects

  6. Access to extracurricular activities

According to the research, only 3% of people had all six of these experiences while studying — but those who did were disproportionately better off after higher education. Of the 3%, 65% reported they were now engaged at work and 85% felt their college experience had prepared them well for life after graduation.

Barriers to accessing the “big six” experiences include the rise in non-traditional student enrolment, faculty members needing more support to integrate experiential learning into their pedagogies, and factors such as location and cost. 

While discussion of higher education tends to be focused on economic ROI, Gallup’s research makes it clear that non-economic outcomes are vital too. 

To Gen Z, a good job is a job with purpose

When it comes to defining a “good job”, 25% of young people would say the mission and purpose of the job is a top priority, while 20% would say pay and 17% say the opportunity to learn new skills. What’s more, 55% of adults say they would switch jobs to achieve greater impact (young adults, democrats and those identifying as LGBTQ+ are most likely to switch jobs for this reason).

With Gen Z set to be 27% of the workforce in OECD countries by 2025, their willingness to prioritise purposeful work has the potential to shift the way we all do business. 

55% of adults say they would switch jobs to achieve greater impact.

Moving from “school-centric” to “student-centric” pedagogies

Attendees agreed that higher education institutions must introduce an approach to learning that is flexible, stackable and project-based to help students graduate ready for the modern workforce. A cross-faculty, interdisciplinary approach is also vital to allow students to learn the skills and approaches they need to thrive after graduation. From systems thinking to digital literacy and project management, the skills employers require today aren’t confined to any single subject or sector — and faculty need to adapt curricula with that in mind.

We need to lower the cost of professional experiences

Alongside experiential learning, experiences outside the classroom enable students to learn what it means to work in sustainability in practical terms and help them to forge a clearer path after they graduate. But high costs, as well as the rise in non-traditional student enrolment, have impacted universities’ ability to offer internships consistently to students. Many students nowadays lack the social capital and networks of their peers, while others are restricted by their location or personal finances. To create a more equal playing field, educators need to work with businesses to identify project-based, tangible professional experiences that are also hybrid or remote. 

Impact is good for business — but greenwashing is bad for everyone 

Businesses are under pressure to meet net zero targets by 2030. While many are working to make meaningful changes, others are taking shortcuts, leading to greenwashing. There is therefore a danger of an early career professional taking what they think is an “impact focused” job, only to be disappointed when they discover that their employer doesn’t take sustainability seriously. This could have a knock-on effect on retention — already a crucial challenge for businesses — as well as employee confidence.

For this reason, some attendees felt that higher education institutions have a responsibility to vet organisations more thoroughly when matchmaking students for professional opportunities, as well as to seek out partnerships with companies in industries that might not be typically associated with impact, such as hospitality. 

Being a “good employer” today means being willing to implement robust sustainability pathways throughout the organisation, as well as supporting all team members to keep learning across their careers. 

Being a “good employer” today means being willing to implement robust sustainability pathways throughout the organisation.

Business schools need to pick up the pace

A number of business schools are trying to revisit their curricula in the light of shifting global challenges and needs. However, change isn’t happening quickly enough. A new program can take up to three years to implement, meaning by the time it is approved it is already irrelevant. Silos, too, can play a role in slowing things down, with many attendees calling out a need to break down barriers between business schools, industry and policymakers.

On the other hand, change is afoot: some business schools are now working with employers to support students to learn the additional skills they’ll need when they graduate, through extra certifications or experiential projects. 

Thank you to our partners, Times Higher Education and the Global Business School Network, and everyone who attended the roundtable. We look forward to continuing the conversation as we work to bridge the gap between higher education and business! 

If you’re interested in learning more about future roundtables, please click here


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