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What is the role of higher education in tackling the sustainability skills gap?

Updated: Apr 30

These summary insights are from the roundtable on the theme: Tackling the Sustainability Skills Gap: What role(s) for higher education?. Learn more about our roundtable series here.

Universities need radical change fast — but inertia is holding them back

In the words of roundtable provocateur Blair Sheppard (Global Leader, Strategy and Leadership, for the PwC network) and colleagues, reconfiguring economic ecosystems to avoid the consequences of climate change will take “audacity and practicality”. Leading thinkers have systematically underestimated the scope of the intersecting challenges posed by global megatrends such as AI, geopolitical fractures and the climate crisis. We need radical change and enormous investment to confront these wicked problems — and we’re running out of time to do so. 

Higher education is a key piece in the puzzle, responsible for equipping learners of all ages to drive innovation, progress and prosperity. However, universities and colleges need to radically reinvent their business models in order to be fit for purpose in a new world. These institutions face their own obstacles to change, including widespread inertia, a bureaucratic culture, competition over collaboration and siloed working practices. 

Attendees suggested that we need to amplify positive examples of change in higher education globally to help overcome internal resistance and inspire fast action. Others posited that the university might not be the right vehicle for the pace and depth of change needed, instead suggesting a more agile, distributed and networked approach to higher education. 

Unity is key to build up momentum

It was clear from the roundtable discussion that institutions need to come together for a united future. This will involve putting aside egos and the responsibilities of individual roles and instead inviting each person and institution to bring their perspective and expertise to the table, with the shared goal of meeting collective needs. It will also require a willingness to hold fair, practical and balanced conversations about difficult subjects and to challenge long-standing assumptions. 

Projects such as the European Universities initiative are a promising sign of progress, bringing together several institutions for collaborative learning and systems change.  

We need to rethink how we measure success

In a world where upskilling is a top priority, why is exclusivity still the key measure of success for many institutions? Attendees suggested that affordability and accessibility should be the goals for forward-thinking universities and colleges. They namechecked Arizona State University as an institution focused on removing exclusivity, as well as the inclusive approach to higher education pioneered by countries like Panama

Traditional teaching methods and academic incentives are no longer relevant

Some attendees posited that curricula aren't being adapted quickly enough to reflect and adequately prepare students to enter changing industries. On the other hand, others suggested that it isn’t just the content that is the problem but also how it is being taught. Most institutions still emphasise short-term rewards and traditional academic incentives rather than a long-term, experiential approach to learning that’s more suited to the world today. 

By approaching higher education through a systems lens, we can shift pedagogies to be more practical and exploratory, encouraging everyone to develop a passion for learning rather than ticking boxes. 

AI needs to be better integrated into pedagogies across disciplines

Used strategically, AI can be a transformative tool for change in higher education institutions, speeding up research, lessening the administrative burden and even radically reducing course costs. It also shifts institutions away from the “professor as expert” role — with the right AI tool and the right questions, students can now find out all the information they need. 

This is proving controversial amongst faculty, causing conflict between students and educators when it comes to using AI as a generative tool to get things done. There is also a tension between some educators’ attitude to AI and employers’ needs: at the moment, many students aren't permitted to explore these tools in their studies, despite employers actively seeking talent with knowledge of AI platforms. 

Attendees suggested presenting the benefits of AI to educators (for example, less time spent in traditional lectures means more time for deeper, experiential learning approaches), as well as proactively teaching students about the history of AI and its potential for underlying biases. 

The student voice is immensely powerful — we should encourage them to use it 

From more experiential learning opportunities to flexibility in the curriculum and a greater sense of agency, students know what changes they'd like to see — institutions just need to listen. Providing a platform for students to express their needs can be a great source of inspiration, as well as a way to break down silos and encourage a more interdisciplinary approach. 

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!.

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


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