Why digital soft skills are crucial to graduate success and HE digital transformation

Becki Vickerstaff
Dr Becki Vickerstaff

Jisc higher education senior consultant Dr Becki Vickerstaff describes how higher education providers can prepare students more effectively for the workplace by focusing on broader digital skillsets.

Student and tutor working at a computer

The adoption of new technology by business is accelerating.  To thrive in this new working environment, employees need a mixture of tradition and digital soft skills, such the ability to collaborate online and the agility to quickly learn new tools.

This means the higher education (HE) sector needs to produce graduates with a well-rounded set of digital skills.

Changing technology and job landscape

While the pandemic prompted a huge shift to online learning, a shift in attitudes to support digital skills didn’t accompany it. HE curriculums are still evolving and catching up from those turbulent years. This means digital literacy and transferable soft skills are nice-to-haves rather than critical must-haves for most organisations.

However, we know that students want more focus on developing their digital skills. Jisc’s 2022 HE Student digital experience insights survey revealed that just 33% of respondents had their digital skills assessed, and only half received guidance on the digital skills they needed to complete their course.

The picture is similar for university staff, who told us they needed more support, too: only 14% were assessed for their digital skills and training needs.

The challenge

This creates a challenge for today’s undergraduates: many are doubly disadvantaged because they are not being helped to develop their digital skills, and neither are their teachers.

The pace of technological change – including the rapid adoption of artificial intelligence and machine learning - means that many jobs graduates will be applying for in a decade don’t yet exist and the skills they will need aren’t systematically taught across the sector.

At the same time, budgets are constrained due to the cost-of-living crisis and a cap on UK tuition fees. This means it is not easy to secure resources for training in digital transferable skills.

However, unless higher education providers (HEP) focus on developing these skills within the student and staff populations, digital transformation efforts will be stymied, and graduates will leave their studies without the necessary skills to thrive in the workplace. This has obvious knock-on effects for the UK economy.

First steps

Embedding digital fluency throughout the curriculum starts before students begin their courses. Universities that assess students’ digital skills early in their academic journey will be well-informed when planning training initiatives, support materials and assessing students' progress.

Providers must also understand the digital skills needs of industry versus the current skills of staff and students.

Only when all the relevant data from industry, staff and students has been gathered and analysed can providers create curriculums and training that support digital skills development.

It is vital that digital capabilities are treated as continually evolving skills. HEP leaders should aim to create a culture of digital skills development that supports digital transformation by focusing on training for students and staff. The latter can be applied through appraisals, recruitment phases and training initiatives.

Skills development in practice

The University of Stirling’s law school is a good example of how this approach works in practice. It has instigated a subject-specialist approach to digital fluency and supporting students. To help assess what skills undergraduate students need now and which they will need when moving into the workplace, the university is gathering data from several sources. It is consulting with the Law Society of Scotland, law firms, career service professionals, academic staff, and students returning from work placements to understand the industry’s digital skills requirements.

In addition, first-year students are surveyed to assess their digital skill level. This allows the university to set a baseline of current skills and training needs mapped against the skill sets required by the law industry.

The university uses the data to develop meaningful, authentic digital assessments and curricula that build the work-applicable digital skills of law students.

Further information

Read Jisc’s report Digital strategies in UK higher education: making digital mainstream to discover how today’s HE leaders drive innovation within their institutions by investing in digital skills.

Jisc’s building digital capability discovery tool can support HEPs looking to baseline their staff and students and to effectively target resources and budgets.

About the author

Becki Vickerstaff
Dr Becki Vickerstaff
Higher education senior consultant, Jisc