No conversation about education since 2020-2022 was ever complete without mentioning the word “pandemic”. Since 2023, that word has been steadily replaced with “chatGPT”. Nevertheless, the focus has largely been on ensuring that students do not misuse technology on their journey to being educated, a key facet of the problem created by rapidly advancing technology like artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics has not received the same amount of attention. The Future of Work is something most people think they will face when they have to and then go back to the drawing board and add new courses in higher education or K-12. This has been the standard response to new skill requirements. But the Future of Work is more than a bunch of new skills and new designations.
The vista of the future of work emerges as a landscape imbued with transformative shifts and challenges, fundamentally reshaping established paradigms of employment. The conventional trajectory of routine employment confronts disruption, as the relentless advance of automation and artificial intelligence introduces a recalibration of traditional roles. The sanctity of the conventional 9-to-5 office configuration wanes, yielding ground to an increasingly remote and digitally interconnected workforce. The antiquated notion of a lifelong singular career metamorphoses, yielding to a mosaic of adaptable skill sets that synchronise with and respond to the cadence of technological evolution.
In this evolving narrative, organisational hierarchies and occupational designations experience a perceptible transmutation, as the ascendancy of the gig economy propels it into a formidable force. The familiar contours of permanent employment falter in the face of freelancers, remote operators, and nimble entrepreneurs, each wielding the currency of flexibility to their advantage. The historically inviolable demarcation between professional engagement and personal life erodes, engendering a harmonisation of responsibilities seamlessly interwoven with quotidian existence.
The forthcoming age of work is an unclear, highly customisable and constantly transforming mix of possibilities led by the personal and organisational changes mentioned above and the rapid growth of technology, esp. AI. The latter alone promises to leave many familiar jobs redundant by completely automating the same. Most white collar jobs are definitely going to go away and pink and gold collar jobs are also at risk. Blue-collar jobs might be impacted more by robotics in combination with AI leaving them as an expensive option till the price point becomes viable. Hence, counsellors who are advising our youth today, not only need to be better informed about possibilities but also about the longevity of options.
In this view of vibrant possibilities, we cannot conceive of education in the traditional manner. It is not merely about curricula and styles. While K-12 should continue to focus on teaching the child how to learn and how to immerse oneself with wonder and depth, it behoves higher education (HE) to reimagine itself to be the bridge it has always promised to be (but rarely delivered) between school and industry. While K-12 definitely needs radical changes, HE cannot continue the K-12 model and still expect to be relevant.
Sadly, that is precisely what HE does – K-12 barely gives the student agency or choice in what they should explore and learn and HE forces them to choose after 15 years of no practice in choosing or evaluating and holds them to that choice, forever! A student at the age of 17, with no skills apart from taking tests and exams, is expected to swiftly decide on what they wish to specialise in for the next 4-6 years and then stick to it forever. Most students, hence, think that getting into the top universities is the hack to not being sure so that the network and placement clout of those universities will at least take care of their job requirements. In case they realise that that particular undergraduate degree was not what they wanted to do, they go on to a masters program (typically, an MBA) which allows them to get into some high paying job and so on leaving their undergraduate degree largely pointless and often considered a waste of 4-6 years.
Making such a decision becomes even more prone to error when the world of work is rapidly changing and responding to the unprecedented pace of technological change. In summary, the current model of HE is ineffective and wasteful because:
(a) the system forces a linear thinking process which is a misfit in these times,
(b) HE makes the same mistake as K-12 in packing all that one might need, 10-30 years ago
(c) students are expected to have immensely clear foresight into what they want to do for the rest of their lives at the age of 17-18 when they were never trained for it, and
(d) despite all of this, graduates emerge as unskilled and unprepared for the market and industry which has moved forward. The competencies that are required are not being provided through the undergraduate years. A better handshake with the industry is required. I definitely see a future where the industry is more invested in the skills and competencies acquired by an individual.
Stanford recently (2015) decided to experiment with the concept of an open loop university (apart from Axis Flip, Purpose-led Education and others). Learn more about the open-loop university idea at http://www.stanford2025.com/open-loop-university
Taking this one step further, is the following idea of a hyperbrid (hyper-hybrid) education (the new HE). The basic tenets are:
- Individuals should focus on gaining competencies
- Competencies can emerge from mastering skills, conceptual knowledge and/or experience on the field performing work/tasks.
- Competencies are universal. A carpenter who can craft a chair for Harvard can do so for NTU, Singapore and can do so for IIT, Bombay. Similarly, one who has the competency to cleanse data for any institute or business can do the same for any other (with the exception of domain peculiarities, which can be picked up on the job). And this competency could be acquired by apprenticing with a top data scientist or via a course at a university.
- Competencies are recognised and accredited via microcredentials.
- Microcredentials can be combined into meta-competencies.
- Meta-competencies and microcredentials can be aggregated into degrees, diplomas, etc. The same competency can be counted towards multiple degrees (as they should be). E.g. My microcredential to research and prepare donor proposals is admissible in my bachelors degree of NGO management as well as bachelors degree of financial communications. I shouldn’t have to go through the course again!
- Microcredentials from different awarding institutes/businesses can be combined.
- There is no age bar on acquiring microcredentials.
Each of the phases, including the “spaces” (which indicate time outside an institution of higher education), can stretch for different lengths. While each course leading to a microcredential can have limits on duration, the acquisition of microcredentials itself can be a lifelong process. Universities might want to impose other (rational) restrictions like “75% of the microcredentials must be from our university in order to be eligible for a degree certificate bearing our stamp” or “necessary microcredentials must be acquired within a span of 6 years in order to reflect the currency required for this degree” and so on. These are details beyond the scope of an introduction to radically changing higher education.
This schema will be a success and a perfect response to the future of work that looms ahead of us. An individual can graduate from K-12, take a couple of courses from a university that admits her while she also works gigs at places that connect to her purpose or curiosity, complete a year or so of this and decide to work/intern at a firm, acquire experience and microcredentials before returning to a nearby university to study a different set of competencies and so on till she has the skills and experience to work in the domain she is most aligned with.
To some it might seem like all the universities in a country need to align to this in order for this to even take-off. Stanford has demonstrated that one university and its ability to execute distance-programmes can suffice. This also allows for students who do not want to experiment and are willing to take the risk of putting (nearly) all their eggs in the one basket of a pre-assembled degree programme. This also allows for a student to pick the competencies from the best of places around the country or even around the world (if university requirements and philosophies align). This allows for those who have acquired competencies which were sufficient to do what they wanted to because they will still have earned microcredentials and not be left empty-handed with the title of a “college dropout”. This allows for every university/college to offer a variety of programmes in a cost-effective and efficient manner. It definitely will pave the way for students to not drown in debt and acquire the credentials piecemeal and with surety. This pushes colleges and universities to update and upgrade their course offering to be acceptable as resulting in a competency (whether nationally or internationally). This is bound to improve the level of higher education in India.
This is indeed the way forward. Providing these byte-sized microcredentials to individuals who can acquire, assess, apply and pivot, if required, is the key to building a powerful workforce for the future. India can pioneer this movement and show it can be done. With the industry increasingly hiring for skills rather than degrees, this will increase the employability of our youth, tremendously. These are indeed exciting times.