Universities play a key role in navigating AI for economic and societal resilience 

A student in front of a calendar

As the World Economic Forum 2024 plays out in Davos, we’re exploring the ways that higher education plays a critical role in cultivating the AI skills and mindset required for creating a robust world economy and society.   

According to Joël Mesot, President at ETH Zürich, universities have a highly important position in addressing global risks and challenges “by helping transfer knowledge to society as a whole.” By developing graduates with the soft skills sought by employers, tackling the complex understanding of ethics and AI security, and creating innovative partnerships within industry – higher education can actively shape the landscape for an emerging AI economy.  

We’ve compiled five ways that universities can play an active role in navigating AI for economic and societal resilience: 

Mitigating global risks 

Global risks are growing. With increasing urgency to tackle climate change, growing global conflict, economic instability and cyber security risks, universities must take the role of transferring knowledge within society seriously.  

According to Professor C Raj Kumar, Vice-Chancellor of O. P. Jindal Global University, universities should enable students to “learn resilience” in facing today’s rapidly changing world and provide the skills to “go beyond work-ready but enable students to be life-ready in facing today’s global challenges and with growing industry demand to upskill” throughout their careers. Universities must ensure graduates are poised to tackle our greatest global risks and to lead into the future.  

Developing emerging skills 

With the growth of accessible AI tools, employers are looking to recruit employees who possess strong skills in problem-solving, analytical and quantitative skills, and creativity. Respondents of the QS Global Employer Survey 2022 place these three skills as the most important.  

In fact, 74% of employers surveyed in the QS Generative AI Employer Pulse Survey 2023 say that the adoption of AI technology will improve their organisation’s ability to innovate and 63% feel it will lead to significant operational savings.  

This illustrates the need for employees who can navigate the emerging technology and be resilient as things change. Universities should evaluate existing curricula and align with the identified critical skills, ensuring that graduates are equipped with the competencies most valued in the workplace. 

Ethical and socially responsible use of AI 

New AI technology comes with unchartered risk for today’s learners, society and workforce. As commerce leads on innovation, universities must take on the critical role of shaping ethical and socially responsible uses of AI and encouraging students’ critical thinking around the technology.  

At the Reimagine Education Conference 2023, QS CEO Jessica Turner spoke about the role of higher education in the future of AI. She said: “One of the things that will be crucial in the future world is ensuring that students really understand ethics and moral responsibility, that they have understood how to think critically and question these technologies. 

“Many will already know that the technology is vulnerable to error, which means there’s a big responsibility for universities to take in ensuring the emerging role and influence of these tools is approached with the right governance and caution.” 

Building innovative university-industry partnerships 

Driving employability and economic resilience requires stronger partnerships between universities and employers.  

Nadia El-Gowely is Executive Director at Al-Fanar Media and a former journalist. Speaking on the role of universities in bridging the skills gap at the Reimagine Education Conference 2023, El-Gowely said that she believes the key is to engage students and “make them an active partner to debate and discuss how things are done on their programmes and what that might mean for their futures when they graduate.  

“Help them to build a curriculum that pertains to the job market they’re going into,” she said. Institutions should look beyond case studies and guest speakers to collaborate and confide with employers on the latest knowledge, trends and challenges facing their industry, to convert ideas into action.  

Preparing for Generation Alpha 

Those born between 2010 and 2024, Gen Alpha, are fully immersed into a world of automation, algorithms and AI. They’re curious and already exploring AI technology on their own terms, through new and gamified ways of learning. The development of deeply personalised learning is required to engage this generation with their potential. 

At IESE Business School, AI and Generative AI is already being used to enhance and innovate learning for the school’s executive students. Maria Perillo is Lead Product Manager for Learning Innovation at IESE.  

When speaking on the future of AI in higher education at the Reimagine Education Conference 2023, Perillo said: “[By using AI tools], we’re learning that personalisation drives engagement. The more we personalise, the more [students] engage with the resources we want them to see. It’s not just about data points and algorithms. It’s about the human experience and considering how we can create content that connects with the student and their community.”

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