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Dr Steven Butts is Head of Plymouth Business School. His teaching interests include intercultural communication, culture and social change, creative design and experiences as well as public participation in real world problem solving. His research explores event and destination innovation and experience design. He has a particular interest in the evolution of the student experience in education, having spent time in educational environments in the United Kingdom, United States, the Netherlands, South Africa, the Czech Republic and Denmark.

To find out more about Dr Butts’ research and work, please contact him via email.


The United Kingdom’s industrial strategy recognises four Grand Challenges aligned with global trends that will increasingly impact society, the economy and human lives over the coming decades. The strategy sets out how the UK could take advantage of predicted major global changes, responding in a way that improves people’s lives as well as national productivity. These Grand Challenges: artificial intelligence and data, an ageing society, clean growth and the future of mobility, will have a particular impact on education and employment. I share some of the thinking within Plymouth Business School about how the Grand Challenges may impact society, employment and higher education.

Taking up the challenges

Artificial intelligence will have a significant impact on employment in future. 

Many job roles will become obsolete. This presents a challenge that young people, students, universities, employers and the government will have to overcome. I doubt that any sector will be immune from job cuts, even those currently employing hundreds of thousands of people such as health. To give an example, medical experts currently engage with patients, gathering data on genetic history, symptoms and previous treatment. They have the training, expertise and experience to spot the one in a million case when analysing this data. In the future, this data is likely to be processed by a supercomputer. Data, which a medical consultant would previously analyse in much smaller quantities, will be ‘crunched’ more quickly and comprehensively. Artificial intelligence will enable terabytes of data to be analysed quickly. Of course, it will depend on the algorithm used but we already have access to phenomenal computing power and this begs the question, how will medical consultants work in future?

The challenges around securing clean economic growth are immense. How can the economy and the population continue growing in a way that halts the environmental degradation of the planet? How will most people and goods be transported in future? Will it be by sea, road, rail or air? One of the first electric commuter flights is due to take off from Exeter Airport; this could make air travel less polluting. Even now, planes mainly take off and land on autopilot. How will the evolution of this technology impact demand for pilots and pilot training in future?

Jack of all trades

The government has been keen to drive the skills agenda in response to the challenges. Predictions are that few of today’s graduates will enter one sector and stay there for life. Many will have multiple careers in their lifetime. The government’s projections are that people will have seven career changes throughout their working life

Today’s 25-year-old graduate might find that there is limited demand for their skills in a decade’s time. This leaves us with the challenge of preparing people to transition between different careers. What skills will they need to be successful in each one?

Lifelong learning has been proposed as one solution. However, people will need learning support multiple times in their career. At present, we are equipping people to change careers once or twice in their lifetime. This will need to change. There is also the question of how this kind of support will be financed and how we can ensure there is the right mix of people with the right skills that the economy and society need to flourish? Some countries, such as Denmark, still decide how many people will study each degree subject every year. In the UK, students have been free to choose what they want to study at degree level. One of the advantages of gaining a degree is that a graduate should ultimately be able to learn. Higher education should deliver well-balanced people who can learn and apply that learning to a range of areas.

The government wants higher education institutions to work more closely with businesses and organisations. This poses a cultural dilemma; universities have historically sought alliances with like-minded organisations. There are challenges for the sector about who we might readily engage with. We need to build in more nimble thinking. Learning in future will be more personalised. Learners have become ‘customers’ who will seek highly individualised and accessible offerings. This comes at a time when we are all suffering from opportunity overload and bombarded with too much choice. This is another challenge for education providers! On a positive note, if people are moving between careers and sectors, their backgrounds and experience will become more interdisciplinary. The country needs to find ways to capitalise on that.

No person is an island

The pandemic has reinforced that we are social creatures. As society slowly returns to the new normal, students across the country are desperate to meet, learn and socialise face to face. Most still want the full university experience, exploring a new city, participating in clubs and activities, enjoying parties and social life, not an educational model skewed heavily towards online teaching and learning.

Social isolation is going to become an increasing problem in society. We know many older people feel socially isolated, but this has now become a problem for the young too. Dealing with a call centre can be someone’s only social interaction for days! This raises the question of how we keep people physically and mentally healthy when they are isolated? Students and young people’s mental health are constantly in the news. Current indicators are that many receive a woeful lack of support. If we are struggling to manage the impact of social isolation now, while many sectors of the workforce are still people-based, it is mind boggling to consider how we might cope with more social isolation in future. It is tempting to think that technology will solve our problems; software like Zoom and Teams have played a huge role during the pandemic, but they cannot replace human interaction.

One track mind

Social science disciplines will play a role in our future. They help us understand ourselves and the world around us through observation, interpretation and analysis. These insights can help us build deeper, more meaningful and valuable connections with others. 

Current policy focuses on encouraging more students to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines, but this does not account for the huge importance of the creative industries to our society, economy and wellbeing. Over time science and social science disciplines have increasingly operated in silos, weakening the opportunities for them to complement one another. The focus on STEM subjects should not cancel out our work on understanding human and group behaviour. We need psychology, history, sociology and anthropology too. As we have seen during the pandemic, developing a vaccine is only part of the story. We need to engage people and convince them to have the vaccine.

Best laid plans

Today’s planning needs to factor in what the country will look like in thirty years’ time. 

We can already predict many of the skills, employment and educational challenges ahead. We must also consider the opportunities ahead and how they can be harnessed. This will require wider consultation on policy decisions. Too much decision making takes place on the political expediency of the moment and we need plan better as a country. China’s leaders have been able to marry the benefits of a one-party system with the benefits of market growth in a capitalist system. Capitalism is based on the premise of there being unlimited growth and unlimited resources. If a national economy does not continue to grow, it collapses. 

Building back post pandemic, and dealing with the climate emergency, we need to re-structure economics. There will be workforce and wellbeing issues to address. If technology and change make so many jobs obsolete, it raises the question of what are future generations going to do during their working life?

Creating business impact through knowledge engagement

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