The audience of the educational symposium held by Oxford International AQA Examinations (Oxford AQA) focusing on Lord David Willets’ presentation.

IN a time when the world is facing fast-paced changes and the relevance of univesity for school-leavers is being questioned, it is important to note that it is a university education that will help individuals thrive in the Industry 4.0 era.

This is the key message from Lord David Willets, cabinet minister for universities and science in the British coalition government from 2010 to 2014, and now a visiting professor at King’s College London and a member of the House of Lords.

“University education, undoubtedly, has a continuing role to play globally, with university as one of the great institutions of modern society and as a transformational experience for the individual,” he said during his presentation at a recent educational symposium, organised by Oxford International AQA Examinations (Oxford AQA) at Taylor’s University in Subang Jaya.

He shared with the audience contents of his book, A University Education, which is a powerful defence of the value of higher education in the world today. It looks back at how the university has attained its crucial role in the modern world — and forward to the challenges facing higher education in the future. It includes an honest appraisal of the problems facing universities in the current climate.

Lord David Willets

“More than half of university students are in Asia — with 91 million of the total 165 million university student worldwide here. Around four million students study abroad, of which 65,000 are Malaysian students. I believe we will see a substantial increase in the percentage of students studying abroad as globalised education becomes both in greater demand and more achievable through technological advancement,” he said.

“The growth of educational technology is enabling greater communication between universities and international prospective students, but universities could be under threat if they do not move rapidly in the digital world and ensure the university degree remains the most desirable and credible qualification available. I believe we will see rapid growth of online provision of university education, particularly Masters qualifications and beyond, and the data collected from digital online learning — revealing exactly how we learn — will have a big impact on advancing the higher education system as a whole,” he added.

Speaking to Higher ED on the sidelines of the event, Willets shared that the British government had just published an industrial strategy, which is very much focused on Industry 4.0.

“One aspect of it is for universities to simply research relevant Industry 4.0 areas, like robotics, satellite systems and smart software. The evidence in my book is that students who have the benefit of a university education are most probably the ones who will thrive in the Industry 4.0 era. They’ll have the cognitive skills and human capital that will enable them to function in a rapidly changing world,” he said.

While, traditionally, numerous educationists have focused on vocation-based education, where students learn a set of skills for a certain vocation, Willets felt that it was a much riskier approach to education as the world was moving so fast.

“Whereas university education, where you learn broad cognitive skills, is a safer option in a changing world,” he said.

Asked on his take on whether a university education can be bypassed as in the alleged cases of tech entrepreneurs Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, he said those American tech billionaires did have their opportunity in life from university.

“Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook was a Harvard project when he was at the university. Steve Jobs did a calligraphy course at Reed College, which probably led to the creation of the beautiful Apple products. Sir Jony Ives, Apple’s chief design officer, was at Northumbria, where he studied industrial design. That’s where he got the training to make beautiful Apple products. The success of these personalities is linked to them being among the numbers of people benefiting from going to a university,” Willet said.

Lord David Willetts signing his book for one of the participants of the education symposium held at at Taylor’s University Lakeside Campus. Picture by Amirudin Sahib

On whether British universities were as attractive and welcoming to international students — in particular Malaysian students — in the Brexit era, Willets said overseas students were very much welcomed in Britain.

“There is no cap in numbers that can come. And the timing of the regime that has occurred has been to the benefit of everyone. For example, there is now a higher standard of English that is expected before you partake in British education. But to be honest, you should have a decent standard of English if you are to properly benefit from becoming a student in a British university. There’s a warm welcome to students from Malaysia. And one reason I am here is because I want to promote education links between our two countries. And I would love to see more British students coming to study in Malaysia as well,” he said.

On whether there is a difference in quality for international students at universities in Britain or a branch campus outside, he said quality was not compromised, regardless of where the campus was .

“For example, I have been to Nottingham University Malaysia, which is an excellent university in its own right. What I personally think should happen is for Malaysian students to go to the Malaysian campus of Nottingham University first and do a year of the course at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. So you have the experience of living in another country. And my standing is that it is possible. Not many young people in either of the three campuses — in China, Malaysia or the UK — take that opportunity and I’d like to see more do it,” he said.

Asked what was the best path for a Malaysian school-leaver to land a place in a university in the UK, Willets said by and large it would help if the student had a school qualification that was recognised by the British education system.

“It’s part of the argument for the Oxford AQA. It has got a prestigious British name to it.

“A secondary education that include a British-recognised qualification is an advantage,” he said.

And is a qualification from a British university still sought after?

Willets said British universities were effectively regulated by quality assurance agencies. So, students could be confident about attending British university for a high-quality education, adding that it opened doors and job opportunities around the world for young people.

At the symposium, British Deputy High Commissioner to Malaysia Paul Rennie commented that the global education sector was on the edge of a fundamental transformation.

“And I think Malaysia will be the crucible of that change. Here, we will see greater demand for a more highly individualised approach to education, with an emphasis on transferable skills, taught by teachers, who are highly responsive to industry needs.

“Students will want qualifications they can take around the world, which is why we were delighted to launch Oxford AQA under the High Commissioner’s Residence last year. Oxford AQA offers modernity and tradition under a global brand, and its expansion in the region is not just another example of the belief in Malaysia’s potential that so many British institutions have, but also an opportunity for those institutions to learn more from Malaysia about educational demands here,” he said.

Matthew Bennett, Oxford AQA director of education in Southeast Asia, said: “We’re seeing that schools are increasingly choosing international qualifications from Oxford AQA because they believe the content of the syllabus assessed is relevant for international students, and because the assessment approaches are fair for students who live outside the UK; the knowledge tested in Oxford AQA exams is solely subject knowledge and not indirectly English literacy or UK cultural awareness. The introduction of Oxford AQA in Malaysia provides international schools with greater choice of school qualifications to best fit the needs and future aspirations of their students.”

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