I’m going to be a student for the rest of my life. How about you?
A question I often ask the audience when I speak at various conferences or gatherings is this: how many of you are doing a job that is exactly linked to what you studied in college/university?”
Without fail, less than 10% of people in the room put their hand up. Fully 90% of the audience is doing nothing related to what they studied.
What people study in university and their ultimate careers normally do not line up. In my case, for example, I studied economics and mathematical statistics for my first degree, and now I’m a serial entrepreneur who has founded companies/organizations in fields as far-ranging as biotechnology to education to leadership development. I honestly can’t remember anything from my college degree 18 years ago, nor from my MBA 13 years ago. It’s all gone.
Why is this?
The reason most people don’t ever use the facts and figures they learn in a traditional university is because of two things: You change your mind (I entered college thinking I wanted to be an actuary, then a lawyer, then an investment banker. I ultimately ended up as a McKinsey consultant and after 2 years of working became a biotech entrepreneur).
The second reason why this happens is that the world is changing so fast that what you learn quickly becomes outdated. For example, if you had studied computer science 7 years ago, you would have learned how to program for the world in which the device of the moment was a desktop or laptop on which data was physically stored. By the time you graduated (if you still wanted to be a computer scientist), you would have entered the world where most people were now using mobile devices and where the data was stored in the ‘cloud’. What you learned had already become obsolete.
Universities nowadays are struggling to keep up with how much change is going on in the world. The oldest existing, continually operating and first-degree awarding educational institution in the world is Al Quaraouiyine in Fez, Morrocco (according to UNESCO). It started in the year 859. The next oldest is the University of Bologna, which was founded in 1088, almost 1,000 years ago.
The world has changed a lot since then, but university education has changed very little. It’s still based on a lecturer delivering information to students who use textbooks that were written several years ago.
The problem is the world outside the lecture hall is zooming past at an incredible speed. If you read widely, you have heard about the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It basically means that machines and computer programs are very soon going to be able to do many jobs that human beings currently do. Think of the self-driving car, which already exists. If you have a car that drives itself, it means that if you are working as a driver today, that car will put you out of a job. I recently met the managing partner of one of the world’s largest law-firms, who told me that they believe that 30% of the jobs that lawyers currently do will soon be done by artificial intelligence.
As machines and robots replace certain human skills, the future we will live in means we have to continuously reinvent ourselves. We will need to quickly learn more new, complicated skills fast and “just in time”, otherwise we will be left behind.
In such a world, the fundamental purpose of university education needs to shift from ‘learning facts and figures’ to ‘learning how to learn’. One needs to acquire skills like critical thinking, communication, leadership, entrepreneurship, quantitative/data analysis, and how to manage projects and complex tasks. These are the skills that will endure with you, even as the world changes, and that will always make you employable or even better prepare you to create your own job when the computer makes you obsolete.
I sometimes hear people say, “Oh, but all that stuff is happening in Silicon Valley, not in Africa!” Sure, maybe we won’t have self-driving cars in Africa in the next 5-10 years. But the reality is, all this new technology is not far from our doorstep. Sooner or later we’ll have things like self-driving cars and other machines that will replace some of the work we do. And when that happens, we need to be ready to learn something new and change course quickly.
The future of work is changing. Most people in the world are not ready for this.
This is one of the main reasons I started a university (ALU) that is much more concerned about preparing people to become lifelong learners than giving them facts and figures in specific fields. Yes, we have majors like computer science, business management and engineering. But those students who remain fixated on their degrees are missing the point of ALU. Judging by the responses from my audience polls, 90% of them will enter careers that have nothing to do with these majors. So why worry about your major?
The facts and figures our students learn today are a means to an end. They are not the end. Students of today need to “learn how to learn” so they’ll be ready for the much more turbulent and uncertain world they’ll enter.
I’m preparing myself to be a student for the rest of my life. Are you?