Universities Inside out: Sit­uating Univer­sity-Business Co-Operation at the Centre of the Student Learning Journey

Universities Inside out: Sit­uating Univer­sity-Business Co-Operation at the Centre of the Student Learning Journey

Stepping beyond the here and now


Employers constantly talk about graduates being unemployable and not meeting their needs1:Hence employability has currency in universities. Yet there are issues about whose voice is determin­ing what employability means for students, with the distinction often lost between how many gradu­ates are in employment and how employable graduates actually are2. There is also often little thought given to what this means for defining what a university is and its purpose in the twenty first century3.

By 2040 graduates will face a world of work ‘mechanised’ by artificial intelligence, automation, big data and technology where even graduate-level jobs will be replaced by machines4. The fusion of technologies that blurs the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres will mean that being human will need to be about more than knowledge, about more than economic and social value… it will need to be about being creative, adaptive, innovative, connected5. And, in the case of universities it will need to be about enabling graduates to develop and use higher-order graduate attributes to deal with the complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity that they will face in the future world of work. This will be the distinguishing feature of how the universities of 2040 will inter­act with their external environment in order to ensure graduate suc­cess and their impact on society.

Universities of 2040 will actively recognise, embrace and cultivate a wider range of voices from the external environment around them in order to shape the student learning journey. Universities will invert themselves in relation to how they connect themselves, their research and the student learning experience to bring the outside in. The ‘third mission’ (out­reach and external engagement) of universities will become as it always has been, the primary mis­sion of what a university is. This will significantly enrich the class­room experience with professional practice and infuse their research in ways that rely heavily on the interplay between academic and employer whilst not subjugating one voice to the other.

Many universities already have degree programmes accredited by professional bodies, trade as­sociations and employer groups. However, it could be argued that the needs of employers are often situated in the here and now – only in the present. Thus, many of the reports on skills gaps and shortages highlight the urgency of addressing the immediate con­cerns employers have6.

In this time of the fourth in­dustrial revolution, when the race against (with) the machines will be the sin­gle defining feature of the future workforce, it is im­portant that we design the student learning journey so that it equips our grad­uates for a future world of work, and not just for the here and now7 – not just the graduate job that is secured within six months after they graduate8.


Stepping beyond automation

Universities that become inside out will embrace the co-location of industry clusters around them and the at-scale use of immersive (virtual) online learning platforms, MOOCs, and active employer involvement will make the ‘work room’ the everyday classroom where the boundaries between these settings will merge. Stu­dents will start their studies not with theory but in active learning settings based on ‘real prob­lems’ in business. This will flip the learning environment from text books and classrooms to a more immersive and interactive learning experience for students. Practice and theory will be part of a single learning experience.

Some may argue that these approaches to university-business co-operation already exist. But do they go far enough? For the world of work to be an immersive part of the learning experience, universi­ty-business co-operation needs to be far more radical and progres­sive9. It is suggested that this will require a model of higher edu­cation similar to that advocated by KaosPilot in Denmark, where the learning is situated in practice from the start, it is not just an op­tional ‘business skills’ module but the outside-in is an engaged and active part of the learning experi­ence. The KaosPilot10 is a hybrid business and design school that recognises that an entrepreneurial education leads not only to stu­dents getting good jobs, but that it enables them to create new and exciting jobs for the future. Rather than reducing the experience to a job after graduating that is char­acterised by traditional methods of measurement – a Standard Oc­cupational Code, and determining value by some artificial measure of graduate earnings, for many stu­dents, the KaosPilot experience is more about finding a career with meaning and purpose.

The active co-design of learning will give voice to university, em­ployer and student, and ensure that learning goes beyond simply being a functionalist device for employers to fill skills gaps and shortages. Ultimately though, in the context of automation, the challenge for the universities of 2040 will be finding ways to ena­ble individuals to embrace a world where ‘to be employed is to be at risk [and] to be employable is to be secure’11, yet recognising at the same time that any such no­tion of ‘security’ is unachievable12.

1 CBI and Pearson (2016). The Right Combination: CBI and Pearson Education and Skills Survey. Retrieved from: http://www.cbi.org.uk/cbi-prod/ assets/File/pdf/cbi-education-and-skills-sur­vey2016.pdf

2 Rich, J. (2016). Employability: Degrees of value. Occasional Paper 12, HEPI. Oxford.

3 See Boulton G, Lucas C. (2011). What are univer­sities for? Chinese Science Bulletin, Vol. 56, No. 23; Chertskovskaya, E., Watt, P., Tramer, S., and Spoelstra, S. (2013). Giving notice to employability, Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organization, Vol 13, No. 4, Mayfly Books; Collini, S. (2012). What are universities for? Penguin.

4 Ford, M. (2016). Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. Oneworld Publications.

5 Bakhshi, H., Downing, J., Osborne, M., & Schnei­der, P. (2017). The Future of Skills: Employment in 2030. London: Nesta, Oxford-Martin, Pearson.

6 Ibid CBI and Pearson, 2016

7 Schwab, K. (2015). The Fourth Industrial Rev­olution: what it means, how to respond. Foreign Affairs Anthology Series.

8 Holmes, L. (2006). Reconsidering Graduate Em­ployability: Beyond PossessiveInstrumentalism. Presented at the Seventh International Conference on HRD Research and Practice Across Europe, University of Tilburg.

9 Herrmann, K., Hannon, P., Cox, J., Ternouth, P., & Crowley, T. (2008). Developing entrepreneurial graduates: putting entrepreneurship at the centre of higher education. London: NESTA.

10 Elbaek, U. (2006) KaosPilot A-Z. Retrieved from: www.kaospilots.dk

11 Hawkins, P. (1999). The art of building windmills: Career tactics for the 21st century. Liverpool: Graduate Into Employment Unit, University of Liverpool.

12 Costea, B., N. Crump and K. Amiridis (2007). Managerialism and “infinite human resourceful­ness”: A commentary upon the “therapeutic hab­itus”, “derecognition of finitude” and the modern sense of self, Journal of Cultural Research, 11(3): 245-264; Cremin, C. (2010). Never employable enough: The (im)possibility of satisfying the boss’s desire’, Organization, 17(2): 131-149; In Chertsk­ovskaya, E., Watt, P., Tramer, S., and Spoelstra, S. (2013). Giving notice to employability, Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organization, Vol 13, No. 4, Mayfly Books.


Keith Herrmann is Director of Employability and Careers at the University of Surrey where he provides strategic institution-wide leadership on employability, careers, degree apprenticeships and the university’s renowned student placement programme. Keith was previously Deputy Chief Executive at the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) where he worked on research about entrepreneurship education, innovation policy, university-business collaboration, career guidance and STEM education. Keith worked previously at Durham University Business School as Director of Programmes where he led a team specialising in entrepreneurship education and economic policy. Keith is passionate about education, and pro bono convenes the Careers Alliance, a strategic leadership network of 25 national organisations in the UK with an interest in career guidance.

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