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Soft Skills: what are they good for with the rise of the robots?

By Ben Hunt, Sector Insights Lead / 07 February 2024

Image of a robot with students in the background

The Pace and Scale of Technological Change

I was having a conversation about a large technology transformation project with a senior colleague from a university at a social event recently. He said, ‘People thought the project would be implemented by the IT office and didn’t understand they’d also need to make changes themselves to embed new technical processes’. This programme, as happens too often, failed in the end to meet its aims. 

On the face of it, perhaps it failed because staff didn’t have the right level of technical expertise to support implementation. Many processes in universities remain localised and manual, and as such, staff may think that wholesale change must be driven by experts. But technological implementation can’t just be made in the back office and ‘rolled out’ when it is already diffused throughout our workplaces and social fabrics: it requires individuals to adapt.  

This lack of understanding raises questions around skills gaps within universities, particularly with the advancing frontier of AI. As highlighted at a recent event in Artificial Intelligence at King’s College London, the spread of electricity took around forty years, whereas the recent iteration of ChatGPT took fifteen months. The pace and scale of technological change will be swift and broad. Staff capabilities will need to keep up.  

From my time in higher education, in governance, students’ unions, universities and working in regulation, one of the highlights of the sector is the relational culture. It is still feasible to have a higher education career as a generalist rather than a specialist in any technical area. Indeed, academic leaders in departments and on executive boards often have only had experience of academia rather than management.  

However, this approach may seem increasingly anachronistic and naïve. Future higher education provision will be increasingly diffused, distanced, and digital. The changes that this brings about in pedagogy, and the management and operations processes to support provision, will be great. In turn, it seems that technical expertise will be in high demand for leaders.

The Case for Soft Skills

Organisational development is often based on harnessing soft skills at higher levels, rather than hard technical skills. However, there is the increasing potential, and risks, of AI-automated processes forming part of decision-making itself. For decision-makers to understand, utilise, and interpret their own processes, they will have to hold more technical expertise than previously.

However, alongside technical expertise, soft skills will remain core to the organisational design of institutions for the following reasons: 

  • Social justice. Higher education institutions prize themselves as engines of social mobility and justice. Any technology, when it first proliferates, is extremely concentrated and expensive and as such may be deployed by the richest students to gain competitive advantage. Similarly, a student’s ability to understand and engage with new technologies in the classroom will be impacted by the resources they have. Universities will need to balance supporting students to utilise AI with maintaining accessibility, retention, and good outcomes. This balancing act will require soft skills such as empathy, collaboration, and problem-solving.

  • Workforce displacement. The World Economic Forum predicts that jobs such as clerical or secretarial roles, bank tellers, and manual data entry roles will decline quickly. This, however, may mean that there is job growth in other areas, including those focused on data science, agriculture, and digital transformation. Economies broadly, and universities, will need to consider how to reskill students and their own workforces to remain competitive. Training, development, and support for this will require soft skills, including critical thinking, communication and adaptability.  

  • Transformational change. Paul Woodgates recently highlighted in HEPI from his experience of change programmes that there should be, ‘a clear articulation of the case from moving away from what exists now’. Much of this change rationale will need to be couched in the language of institutional culture to be successful, rather than harder cost/benefits analysis. As such, in the short term, it will require communication leadership, interpersonal skills, and a high level of emotional intelligence for such transformation to be successful.

Soft Skills in the Age of AI

Soft skills will remain relevant far into the future. A recent literature review from the National Foundation for Educational Research found that transferrable skills, including problem solving, communication and creativity, ‘will be in high demand in the next 15 years and beyond as technology becomes more embedded in the work force’. Technical skills will evolve, the scale of workforce challenges may be difficult to predict, but there will be a shift in the workforce and displacement. Such changes will require an agile and evolving culture: universities will need to continue to support students in a relational way, and staff will need to balance utilising their soft skills while accommodating an increasingly technology-driven learning environment.

At Strive Higher, we're passionate about supporting the sector to build capacity to meet immediate and future challenges. Get in touch with us to discuss how we can support your learning & development needs.


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