How can we adequately prepare our children for a future that’s changing as quickly as the present? A world in which 65% of jobs don’t even exist yet. It’s a tall order for education systems, which tend to move slowly and cautiously. Even with their new digital emphasis, Switzerland’s Lehrplan21 and Plan d’études romand (PER) are based on the postulate of knowledge as the basis for competence. But as digitalisation and automation revolutionise habits and behaviours, should knowledge be giving way to skills as the product of a successful education?

New challenges, new methods

Can the education system reconcile the focus on skills to traditional learning methods and approaches? Knowing where and how to find information, rather than memorising the information itself, appears to be becoming a new norm. Primary, secondary and tertiary education have all seen a shift towards analytical learning using practical exercises. Some institutions have also integrated project-based learning to teach communication and team working skills.

At the higher education level, nobody is surprised that MBA course participants work with businesses as part of the learning process. In other fields, though, subject leaders within universities can be concerned about the possible loss of independence of thought and action if businesses get involved, however. Nevertheless, if academia is to prepare students for working life, bridges need to be built between the two worlds. Switzerland’s great strength is in finding compromises that benefit all sides.

The cost of independence

The cantons cover most of the public expenditure of the cantonal universities and the universities of applied sciences, and the Confederation also makes some financial contributions. Teacher training institutions (HEP/HP) are financed by the cantons. The two federal institutes of technology are financed by the Confederation. This means that higher education institutions in Switzerland are accountable to the cantons and Confederation, and can only innovate to the extent that the cantons and Confederation agree. Furthermore, the pressure of a market economy is reduced, as financing is more or less guaranteed. Nevertheless, cognizant of the fact that the world is changing, all the institutions of higher education in Switzerland are trying to cater to evolving needs.

New avenues for academia

Other providers are also addressing the need for new learning opportunities – a lifetime long. The advent of massive open online courses (MOOCs) has changed the education landscape quickly and dramatically. As the first free online courses with unlimited global enrolment open to anyone, MOOCs have changed the scalability of education. The hope that MOOCs might reduce disparity was questioned in an article in Science, as study findings by researchers Hansen and Reich raised concerns that MOOCs and similar approaches to online learning can exacerbate rather than reduce disparities in educational outcomes related to socioeconomic status. Justin Reich in Education Week laments that MOOCs do not provide the kind of exchange that students seek and “while direct instruction has its place, the best of what we can offer is oriented around true two-way discourse, student discovery, and student production and performance.”

Embrace – and prepare for – change

It’s vital that we tackle challenges in education, upskilling and reskilling now – in preparation for the sea change we expect in the future labour market. As McKinsey points out:  “The potential number of jobs gained can only be attained if available skills match the need for such jobs; otherwise, job opportunities might remain vacant or be transferred to other countries.” Skill sets such as teamwork, creativity and problem-solving need to be embedded in the way curricula at all levels are developed, using new technologies to support the teaching, not to replace it.