Time to overhaul higher education curriculum

Is higher education equipping the new generation for the future?

Higher Education is facing a crisis in aligning its research functions and curricula with current job requirements and trends. Students demand real-world competencies and move away from theoretical knowledge. Changes in technology, social life, environment and economics necessitate a shift in traditional teaching and research methods that promote active, motivated, innovative learning and high-impact skills. The global employment crisis and the future of work emphasize the need for reskilling and lifelong learning.

However, a lack of insight into upskilling requirements and processes makes it challenging for Higher Education Institutes to prepare students for the 21st-century job market. In the digital world, traditional teaching methods, such as teacher-centred lectures, are losing value. The new generation of students (Gen Z) has different needs and expectations from education systems.

Higher education can play contradictory roles, contributing to radical and transformative changes while also undermining and reinforcing patriarchy and sexism. Universities are subject to societal conflicts and contradictions, and must navigate demand overload to meet various goals, imperatives, and expectations. They must address and mediate this in principled, creative, and strategic ways, recognizing the legitimacy of certain claims while refuting others that could undermine their core identity and purposes

Young individuals, as future leaders and decision-makers, need to develop skills in systems thinking, anticipatory thinking, diversity, emotional intelligence, strategic management, normative aspects, frustration tolerance, and uncertainty management to thrive in a globalized society, a future threatened by climate change, and a sustainable economy. In the ‘post-truth’ age, critical and interpretational competences play an important role. Education for Sustainable Development aims to engage all stakeholders in critical, holistic, and fore-sighted education and learning, encouraging multi-stakeholder and intercultural dialogue and collaboration, promoting a pathway towards positive and sustainable societal change. The relevance of education and learning for sustainability in empowering youth is being highlighted by the movement in jobs and the economy towards green, sustainable, biobased, and circular models. Since climate change is a complicated problem, young people need new ways to study and be educated in order to make positive changes in the world. In order for recent graduates and the workforce as a whole to adjust to the movements in the global market towards sustainability, it is imperative that the Higher Education Commission, Ministry of Human Recourses and Overseas Pakistanis, the ILO and UNDESA address the skills gap. Giving young people the information, abilities, and competencies they need will allow them to participate in discussions, choices, and actions that will affect their future well-being and employment opportunities.

Learning by doing pedagogies for sustainability literacy can empower youth to become core stakeholders and collaborators towards a sustainable future. However, the current ‘post-truth’ timeframe requires a stronger framing of individual sustainability competences, such as research competences, information literacy, and critical and interpretational competences, to enable students to critically reflect upon the complexity and uncertainty of sustainability issues. The intertwined educational and organizational change poses challenges to higher education institutions, as they are doing so amidst educational reforms towards efficiency, accountability, privatization, management, and control.

The need for educational reforms that incorporate holistic thinking and sustainability education into various educational spaces and disciplines is imperative. Higher learning institutions should teach students through hands-on, practical, and solution-based learning approaches, allowing them to understand and research the world, highlight the importance of problem-orientation and the need to act and decide within complex real-life problems where multiple perspectives must be integrated. Universities and colleges can optimize their role as key agents of social change by comprehensively integrating sustainability education and learning into their framework of thinking.

Current education systems lack the necessary skills and worldviews for a sustainability-oriented society and job market. Institutional programs often prioritize climate change and sustainability education, hindering future employment and social cohesion. To address this, educational programs should enhance critical thinking, holistic worldviews, and collaborations with stakeholders.

Public and private sectors should develop programmes to support and empower young people with innovative ideas and community projects on sustainable development and climate change. Integrating educational programs in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and incorporating ESD concepts into teacher education can help close the skills gap and ensure gender and social justice in young people’s involvement in the shift to a green economy, especially in poor nations. HEIs should prioritize their third mission, societal impact, and cross-sectoral approaches to remain relevant and active in globalized societies. They should design programmes in foreign languages, create international institutional environments, adopt global educational approaches, produce research relevant to global trends, and grow multicultural communities. Interdisciplinary research, education, and training of faculty members should be emphasized to address global issues. The interdisciplinary approach helps faculty members develop skills and strengthen institutional bonds.

Higher education is vital in promoting democracy and citizenship by developing critical citizenship skills, active democratic participation, and pursuing social and human rights through research, community engagement, and service-learning. Universities can serve as models for respecting human rights and democratic participation, and contribute to development needs by addressing economic, educational, health, and environmental problems. They also engage with societies, contributing to the intellectual and cultural development of a critical citizenry, shaping world views, ideas, and social relations. Universities must communicate the power of science to the public, fostering critical public education and intellectual debate. Research and scholarship are essential, as universities play a significant role in the rise of an economy where knowledge production and development are valued for economic advantage.

Higher education can play contradictory roles, contributing to radical and transformative changes while also undermining and reinforcing patriarchy and sexism. Universities are subject to societal conflicts and contradictions, and must navigate demand overload to meet various goals, imperatives, and expectations. They must address and mediate this in principled, creative, and strategic ways, recognizing the legitimacy of certain claims while refuting others that could undermine their core identity and purposes.

Dr Zafar Khan Safdar
Dr Zafar Khan Safdar
The writer has a PhD in Political Science, and is a visiting faculty member at QAU Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected] and tweets @zafarkhansafdar

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