The future of education

The world is going online, and the economy is changing drastically. How will education and training adapt?
13 October 2020

Interview with 

Jim Gazzard, Institute for Continuing Education (ICE), University of Cambridge


A university graduate surrounded by electronic devices.


Thanks to the pandemic, we’re entering a world that’s more online; and, thanks to what many are calling the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, it’s a world that’s much more automated and data-driven. Jim Gazzard, director of the Institute for Continuing Education at the University of Cambridge, has been on the front line of having to respond. Chris Smith asked him, firstly, whether young people in the UK should have been sent off to university...

Jim - I think it's a very finely balanced decision. You mentioned young people, and I think that's key. These are people who are needing to get on with their life, needing to get on with their education, and they're relatively low risk; so returning to halls of residence, returning to small group teaching, I think is probably on balance the most sensible decision. But I'm interested in adult education; of course it's a little bit different perhaps for people who are in their forties or fifties or sixties, or students with health conditions, so we decided to deliver all of our continuing education, certainly for undergraduate courses, fully online this year.

Chris - How has, though, the response to learning worked out? Because some people have been saying to me that they go home at the end of the day and they're a bit Zoomed out, square-eyed from staring at screens all day.

Jim - Exactly that. If they've been on Teams all day, or Zoom, then it is quite difficult. So we're trying to break up the learning into smaller chunks and to engage in different ways. What we are hearing from students, particularly because of the global recession that goes along with a pandemic, is that there's a real necessity about learning; whether that's about an enforced career change, whether it's actually a concern about whether skills and knowledge are contemporary. So we've seen a real growth in enrollments - we're over 50% up year on year - and I think this is being mirrored globally. I think sometimes it's for positive reasons, because people have used lockdown to really think about what they want to do with their futures. But as mentioned, it's also for some of these more challenging reasons.

Chris - Lee what's been the experience at Wits in Joburg?

Lee - The teaching has been very good, but we have in the developing world a different challenge: that our students can't afford the bandwidth in the way that the developed world can. Wifi, internet, is not as freely available. So all of our teaching tends to be recorded in advance and we limit the interaction, and I think that's a really sad thing, because like many of you I miss that one on one interaction; it's the things that happen during the course of a lecture, as you follow the students and they challenge you, that is the point of higher education.

Chris - You were quite early to this party though, because when you started making the stupendous discoveries that you have in South Africa, rather than squirrel these findings away in a lab and work on them in isolation for the rest of your career, you actually said, "no, I'm going to scan them, and I'm going to put all this data on the internet so people can download and 3D print their own Homo naledi or Australopithecus sediba," and people are!

Lee - That was just trying to move some of the fighting in this field of palaeoanthropology by showing the evidence, making the evidence available. We were also there very early in going live with the science, experimenting with "how do you go live? How do you communicate science in an authentic way, that also doesn't lose the trust in science, because we make mistakes along the way?"

Chris - Here is the UK's chancellor Rishi Sunak; let's hear what he had to say earlier this week...

Our economy is now likely to undergo a more permanent adjustment. We need to create new opportunities and allow the economy to move forward. And that means supporting people to be in viable jobs which provide genuine security.

Chris - I suppose, Jim, that those sorts of statements are both an opportunity and also a curse for someone in your position, because some things that you may have been anticipating training people for may not actually exist as viable jobs, in Rishi Sunak's words; but there may now be new opportunities, new things potentially, that people want training in, which someone delivering online and adult education... it's an opportunity there.

Jim - Yeah, I think you're right, Chris, there are opportunities and threats. If we want to be serious about science and technology, not only do we need to continue training PhD level scientists, but we need to think about technician level science support. So I think there's going to be some very exciting opportunities in those areas in life science, in physical science, and looking at data analytics, looking at coding. But yes, I think there's going to be creative destruction that's being accelerated around COVID. And we're seeing so-called white collar jobs, that would be exciting professional opportunities even only 10 or 15 years ago, that technology is overtaking with algorithms and machine learning. As an educationalist interested in life wide and lifelong learning it is a really interesting time, but I understand it's a really scary time as well, when I think the norms of employment within an economy in the UK, for example: they're going to change very rapidly, and we have to be ready to respond to that as universities, and education and training providers.

Chris - What's your view on this Theo?

Theo - As has just been said, it's going to be so interesting to see how computers get better at doing the menial things that we do, ranging from driving a car to assessing an X-ray; and how are we going to train people to work around the changing world of work, particularly unfortunately when we face a global economic crisis brought on by COVID.

Chris - It's interesting that both you and Jim just before you brought up computers and coding, because that also made headlines this week, didn't it unfortunately...

Public Health England have admitted tonight that nearly 16,000 cases of coronavirus between the 25th of September and the 2nd of October were not included in daily figures for that period and not transferred to the contact tracing system...

Chris - I think one word springs to mind Jim: whoops. How did that happen?

Jim - That is a really interesting point. I mean, if we are to believe what we've been told, this was about an Excel spreadsheet that hadn't been transferred into the main data repository. Obviously I don't know how it happened, but I would bring this back to skills and training. We need people who have digital skills and we need to be able to design systems that work properly.

Chris - And just very briefly, with your eye on your crystal ball - which I'm sure you have there in your office - what do you foresee as where we will be, from a university point of view, as the university sector, in a year's time? Do you think that organisations like the one that you're running will be at the forefront and it's going to very much be online, or do you think we'll solve this COVID problem and it will be bums on seats back in lecture theatres? Are these changes here to stay?

Jim - Yeah, I think this is going to change universities profoundly. I think there's been probably 20 or 30 years in the UK and Western economies where we perhaps, I don't know, lost our way a little bit. I think we've got to redefine what universities are for. We need to train the next generation of technicians, as I've mentioned; and really thinking about the fourth industrial revolution, what new jobs, what new roles, will be created. Perhaps half of the jobs that will be around in 10 years don't currently exist right now. So what we have to think about in universities is critical thinking and synthesis of ideas, and creativity, and working with new ideas in different ways; and I think that means we perhaps have to get out of discipline silos and think interdisciplinary learning. So I hope universities will view this as a real opportunity - I genuinely think it is - but I think we've got to think about learning as a life wide activity. The skills that we learn at university, if you're 18 or 19... the half life of those skills now might be three or four years, so you're going to have to learn again in your mid twenties, your early thirties, your forties; you might have to change career in your fifties or sixties; and we might have to carry on working until we're 70, 75, or 80. So I think we've got to recondition our learning and the way that we think about learning to respond to how society and technology is changing.


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