Visit Modern Campus

Adapting the Philosophy Around Higher Education

Preparing the modern learner for the workforce requires close collaboration with industry to ensure the skills taught are the same skills needed and recognizing those skills as they are earned, so students can advance in their careers without putting their lives on hold.

The rapidly evolving higher education landscape is forcing institutions to change strategies to survive and thrive this new era we’re shifting to. This means institutions will have to rethink approaches to serving their learners and become more future-proof. In this interview, April Philpotts discusses trends she expects to see in higher ed, how Continuing Education can build better pathways for lifelong learners and the role this division can play moving forward.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the trends you think will have the most significant impact on higher education over the next five years?

April Philpotts (AP): One is the rise of AI, largely because of its impact on the future of work. We’re seeing evidence of this more than ever, since ChatGPT has been opened to the public. This is just one of many AI applications we have yet to see that will rapidly replace skills in high demand today. Accountants and software developers are just two examples of at-risk occupations.

As the pace of technological change increases, the shelf life of four-year STEM degrees decreases, resulting in a need for ongoing education. We’ve been seeing this for a while now with a steadily increasing stream of mid-career professionals seeking short courses they can manage while working and supporting a family. And now we’re even seeing the impact with the younger generation, where students beginning careers in tech are realizing they don’t necessarily need a four-year degree to enter the workforce. A growing number of companies including Google and IBM have dropped the degree requirement in favor of hiring for skills. At the undergrad level, this can impact student motivation to complete the four-year degree.

The pandemic has exacerbated some of the trends we were starting to see. One is a high degree of mental stress, with students lacking strategies and coping mechanisms to deal with managing deadlines, preparing for exams and even communicating and working with their peers. Many students are inadequately prepared to deal with the pressures of university—both academically and socially—and lack a necessary support system. Many have never even written an exam. Universities need to find creative ways to provide additional supports without dumbing down the curriculum, or we will not adequately prepare our students for the future world of work.

Evo: How does that changing philosophy around education start to reshape the institution itself? How does the institution evolve to keep pace with those shifts?

AP: We must teach people what AI doesn’t do, doesn’t do well or shouldn’t do. This evolves the institution’s value as a knowledge provider to, more than ever, a facilitator of higher-level thinking including critical thinking, problem-solving, judgment and ethics. Add to that time management, stress management, communication and teamwork. These and other durable skills that have historically been crucial to humanity’s development must be taught alongside technical skills. This might mean helping faculty develop coaching skills or hiring additional instructors with the skillset to create learning environments that mentor students in this way. It also means challenging students in new ways to learn how to learn, using AI to help them become valued and better citizens, not redundant ones.

Universities need to rethink how we support and develop students both out of high school and at various life stages. I believe the ability for young people to do co-op or experiential learning is no longer going to be considered an advantage for some postsecondary students; rather it’ll become the standard for postsecondary learning. Universities therefore need to create ties with industry in corporate education if they want to be able to prepare new grads and retool existing professionals to provide value in the workplace. 

Finally, Continuing Education or lifelong learning departments like University of Waterloo’s WatSPEED will continue to play a greater role in the broader institution, as 18- to 22-year-olds become just one of a few target audiences the university at large needs to service. This means extending career services like career coaching and internships which have traditionally been reserved for undergrads  to the full spectrum of lifelong students. 

Evo: What are some pathways through which CE leaders can start building learning access for students who normally progress through a more traditional learning pathway? And how can they partner with the rest of the institution for that purpose?

AP: All internal parties need to be engaged and working toward the common goal of paving more suitable pathways for today’s students. CE leaders can help professors take the portions of their course content most in demand by industry and fashion them into a series of shorter professional certificates that can be recognized independently from the larger course but that also stack toward recognition for the larger course. This allows students who are unable to complete the full degree to still receive recognition for the parts they did complete, and that may help them reach an important steppingstone in their career. CE leaders can also make CE courses available to students of degree programs as electives that earn them a digital badge (for in-demand skills recognized by employers) alongside being a course requirement for the degree.

Evo: How does microcredentialing strategy fit into this renewal of the postsecondary mission?

AP: As they are designed with employer and industry sector needs in mind, microcredentials create alternative pathways to traditional degrees that allow students (including professionals) to demonstrate certain competencies to employers. Incorporating microcredentials into the institution’s credentialing framework tends to build new pathways to and from other credentials within the framework, which ultimately creates flexibility for learners with varying career goals. This is an important milestone for postsecondary education’s ongoing evolution. 

Evo: What are some differences you’ve noticed in how industry approaches CE at the college level compared and the university level?

AP: Some say that colleges are eating our lunch in the ongoing education of professionals because they’ve always been more focused on workforce and skills, which makes them more agile when it comes to responding to changing industry needs. I experienced this when I worked in the CE department at Humber College, where they were adapting well-established CE programs into microcredentials and piloting them in two faculties. That was five years ago.

The perception that colleges most effectively prepare people for the workforce needs to change, and schools like University of Waterloo have a unique advantage to do that, thanks to our co-op programs. WatSPEED also is very connected with industry. We don’t build anything without industry input. 

Evo: What are some approaches you’ve seen or suggest universities take to overcome the perception gap between industry/employers and the role the institution can play?

AP: Partnering with industry associations can help build bridges to industry. A good partner association will bring not only a network of members to enroll in your program but great insight into that particular profession or sector that can be helpful in building, for example, a stronger marketing campaign and a more relevant and example-rich curriculum. In any case, it’s always good to involve industry partners wherever you can in developing your programs. Program advisory committees that comprise both industry professionals and academics are a winning combination, and this shows that your institution is listening to employer needs. 

Also, because they focus on research, universities have insight into what’s coming that business leaders need to plan for in order to be sustainable. An example is the impact that quantum computing will have on cybersecurity. Bringing insights such as this to the forefront, alongside providing solutions for industry—for example, learning pathways to prepare their existing employees to proactively manage this disruption—will send the message that universities can bring tremendous value to organizations.     

Evo: How do you see Continuing Ed and workforce education divisions being a broader, deeper socioeconomic driver?

AP: CE units are ideal choices to lead programs that develop workforce capacity to proactively build talent reserves to prevent skills shortages that impact our Canadian economy. They can also offer bridging programs for the many skilled immigrants, for example, who have recently come to Canada and are seeking rewarding work in their field but require some Canadian education or work experience to build their resume.

Before we can make this impact, however, CE units need to start by having a more prominent voice in government to garner financial support for these often labor-intensive initiatives.

Evo: What are some steps that a Continuing Education leader can take to begin moving their division, creating that visibility?

AP: Inviting government officials together with corporate and association partners to participate in awareness-raising events that establish the need for these types of initiatives helps to create mutual understanding of the issues at hand and build necessary relationships to find solutions. An obvious step is also to keep an eye out for funding announcements and be ready to put a proposal together—and quickly, as those deadlines are tight!

At Waterloo, government isn’t the only stakeholder to whom we need to become more visible to make these kinds of initiatives successful; it’s also important for our faculty to see that we share a common goal. Involving faculty to deliver expertise on topics that match both their interests and those of corporate and government clients in high-profile opportunities is one way to do this. You also need to build trust and demonstrate that academic quality is equally important to your unit. Traditionally, CE units are seen as having a very different agenda (e.g., revenue-focused), one that may work against the university’s reputation.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add on the trends you see shaping higher education in the coming years?

AP: These are certainly interesting times, when rapidly changing technological advancements are reshaping society. Despite this constantly changing landscape to which industries and higher education alike must adapt, one thing we mustn’t forget is the timeless need for higher-order skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, systems-level thinking, good judgment, and the science and art of good questioning, which have collectively formed the modern university’s foundation since the teachings of Socrates. These remain equally necessary today for a strong functioning society. We in higher education need to remember our foundational value and, amidst facilitating the development of current STEM competencies, continue developing those critical timeless skills that ultimately help shape a better society and future for humankind.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Author Perspective: