Interview with Fernando Reimers

September 14, 2020
“Universities need to [educate students] so they are ready to create the jobs of the future.”

Interview with Dr. Fernando Reimers, Ford Foundation Professor of the Practice of International Education, Harvard University.

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Dr. Fernando Reimers.

Dr. Fernando Reimers

To prepare young people for the jobs market, education systems need to do two things, argues Dr. Fernando Reimers, a Harvard professor of international education: give them the skills the market seeks and—equally important—the skills to create jobs for themselves and others. Reimers lays out concrete actions that tertiary education providers can take to achieve this and offers insight into how the COVID-19 pandemic is transforming the education sector.

What is the single biggest thing you believe needs to happen in reforming and rethinking higher education (tertiary) systems in developing countries?

There is great heterogeneity among the 28,000 or so institutions of higher education around the world, so it is challenging to identify a single thing that would be of value to them all. In the developing world, where nine out of ten young people live, there is still a long way to go in increasing access to higher education, so the mission of democratizing access is still quite relevant. The development of accessible and sustainable systems of education will require attention to costs. In many countries the cost of higher education is such that it inhibits expansion in access.

We also need to focus on the relevance of higher education. Across the world, automation and the development of artificial intelligence are displacing workers. This creates a new imperative of relevance for higher education: how to focus on the cultivation of skills and knowledge that will provide their graduates the flexibility, creativity, adaptability, and resiliency to thrive in a volatile and rapidly changing world. Arguably, such a world will place a premium on lifelong learning, and this creates an opportunity for universities, to more intentionally become learning enterprises who can support a variety of learners, in a variety of modalities, throughout their lifespan.

How well do today’s education systems prepare young people for the jobs market?

There are two ways to think about this question. The first is, do university graduates have the skills to meet the needs of the labor market? In many countries around the world there is a paradox that, while there is graduate unemployment, employers complain that they have vacancies that they cannot fill because the available candidates lack essential skills. Often these refer to interpersonal and intrapersonal skills: work ethic, conscientiousness, responsibility, autonomy, capacity to work independently, capacity to collaborate—or to particular advanced cognitive skills: problem-solving skills, creativity, innovativeness, entrepreneurship. From this perspective, universities would do well to review their curriculum and pedagogy to help students develop the essential breadth of skills to participate civically and economically in the twenty-first century.

An alternative way to think about this question is in terms of whether university graduates have the skills necessary to create new jobs, for themselves and for others, whether they have the capacities essential not to meet the present demands of the labor market, but to create the labor market of the future. This is a more challenging question, it suggests that one reason there are not enough jobs is because there are not enough people with the full range of skills essential to create jobs. From this perspective, universities are failing to lead in all countries in which there is youth unemployment, which is to say most of the world. Universities need to have missions that contribute to the improvement of their communities, which requires educating students not only to meet the needs of the present labor market, but also educating them so they are ready to create the jobs of the future.

If you were to give a university three suggestions for improving the employability of their students, what would they be?

Create multiple pathways for students to combine work with study, for instance, creating opportunities for part-time study while students work, or creating coop programs, or enhancing the connections between industry and academic programs.

Create joint workgroups, representing industry and academia to review existing academic programs, and to ask the question not of ‘what graduates does the market need to meet present needs’ but rather ‘what industries and jobs could we create in this region, given its comparative advantages, if we had the right talent’. In other words, increase the social embeddedness of the university in the society, and in the economy, and ensure good articulation.

Provide faculty opportunities to spend time, perhaps even work, in industry for brief periods, particularly of the highest value add and more modern enterprises, so they would learn about their culture, and then make universities less bureaucratic, more horizontal organizations, and engage faculty in designing a learning enterprise that is more aligned with the modern enterprises.

Are there examples where the private sector and tertiary institutions are doing particularly well on employability?

I think there are numerous examples around the world of universities that are innovating, that are truly aligned with the new economy, and creating the economy of the future. In the United States, Arizona State University is an exemplary socially embedded university that sees itself as a learning enterprise with the aim of supporting lifelong learning. MIT and Stanford have been remarkable institutions in their contribution to the creation of an entire innovation ecosystem. In Mexico, the Instituto Tecnologico de Monterrey has, for decades now, had exemplary relationships with leading business leaders and contributed to regional economic development. There are many others around the world.

Can you pinpoint a country that you feel has gotten it right and what’s the key to their success?

I don’t know that there is a single national case of success, I do think there are institutional successes. The COVID-19 pandemic will create a veritable opportunity for an honest conversation about who adds value. Many universities will not survive the crisis, they were on life support, hanging on to unsustainable practices and business models, and the financial crisis the pandemic has created, and will likely bring about, has accelerated their decline. The pandemic has also accelerated the need for innovation in other institutions.

Are the worldwide school and campus closures triggered by COVID-19 causing you to reconsider or refine any of your own ideas on system reform?

Most certainly. The pandemic is having a devastating impact on lives, on communities, industries, and nations. It will make the world more fragile and unstable. A crisis of such depth calls for great leadership, for individual and institutional leadership. I see universities as called to provide such leadership, but they will not be able to exercise it by doing more of the same, but rather by embracing the pain and the needs that this pandemic has created, and deciding to be of service to addressing those needs, not as social service agencies but as institutions that through the advancement of knowledge and education can help reinvent society, as we will have to do. I believe some universities will step up to that challenge. We may not immediately recognize the significance of that, but over time, we will come to see them as the pioneers of a new order for higher education, they will be the institutions helping define the new mission for higher education.

I am currently leading a study of how universities around the world have partnered with elementary and secondary schools in sustaining educational opportunity during the pandemic, and in seizing the moment to help transform school education. It is remarkable to see how true, leading institutions can step up to this challenge, seize the significance of the moment, and engage as engines of social innovation at a time when this could not be more necessary. I imagine similar things are happening in other areas, whether they are health, business, environmental sustainability, or shaping the future of cities.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Fernando M. Reimers is the Ford Foundation Professor of the Practice of International Education and Director of the Global Education Innovation Initiative and of the International Education Policy Masters Program at Harvard University. An expert in the field of global education, his research and teaching focus on understanding how to educate children and youth so they can thrive in the twenty-first century. He is a member of the UNESCO high-level commission on the Futures of Education. With colleagues at the OECD, the World Bank and the organization HundrED, he is leading an effort to support educational continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic with applied research. Dr. Reimers has written or edited 35 books. For more information about his work go to