Among the topics discussed lately in the domain of education, the issues of skills and competencies needed at the modern labour market, dominate rather strongly. This is happening with some delay but in logical response to dramatic changes in technology and work patterns.

“Skills have become the global currency of the 21st century” - according to the OECD document Better skills, better jobs, better lives: A strategic approach to skills policies (Paris, 2012, p.3). It is generally recognised that Nordic countries, and Norway in particular, have accepted this challenge earlier and more readily than many others. Irrespective of the government of the day, this focus remains in Norway highly on political agenda, and the country is therefore being rewarded by enviable economic indicators, such as 9% annual productivity growth (second worldwide, but with a 27-hours working week), and probably the happiest workforce on the planet. Obviously, there is a lot to learn from the Norwegian experience.

As reported by the World Economic Forum, for the coming 4 years 13.5% growth of emerging professions is expected. During the next 5 years workers will have to acquire even 40-50% of new skills, and in response, the employers are expected to offer reskilling and upskilling to some 70% of their employees.

This is creating an unprecedented challenge for everyone, including university teachers, who can contribute a lot, but are often not sufficiently aware of the urgency of the situation. The same can be said also for the respective government departments, not to mention the students, as well as the general public.

Problems of post-secondary education

The basic problem characterising most European countries is the following: employers pay people according to positions defined primarily by the type of diploma. Therefore, students are motivated to obtain a diploma - referring to his/her academic achievement, and not a proper set of competencies and skills, which determine the productivity of a person. The tradition of the Humboldt-type university is still very strong, and what is neglected is the fact that this first modern-style European university had served a very different societal function: it was preparing the future elite in a predominantly illiterate society. But in a knowledge society, the university is expected to produce qualified (which means competent and skillful) “knowledge workers”.

Prof. T. Wagner from Harvard University has defined this difference very clearly: “Once people were coming to university to obtain the certificate that they have acquired certain knowledge, while today they come to acquire the competencies for successful performance of various professions offered by the labour market”.

Many people, including university professors, are still sharing the traditional mentality – understanding their role being to pass the best knowledge in their domain onto their students, and paying little attention to the competencies and skills required from the labour market today, let alone tomorrow. In a recent survey conducted among the employers in the UK, the British Employers Association came to the conclusion that their members attribute 70% of their future employees' competencies to be skills and soft skills, and only 30% to conventional knowledge from various scientific disciplines.

These gaps between the labour market requirements and the actual competencies of graduates remain a major challenge in most European countries (not so much in Scandinavia, in the US and several Asian countries). There are too many university professors, who are not being offered effective assistance and support in modernising their teaching. This is considered their individual responsibility, which coincides with another old-fashioned approach – treating each academic subject strictly separately, leaving limited space for interdisciplinary and inter-subject perspectives. This is well illustrated by the curricula of many universities, and programmes of individual subjects.

Recognising both the complexity of skills policies and the potential for peer learning, the OECD has developed a Global Skills Strategy that helps countries to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their national skills systems, benchmark them internationally, and develop policies that can transform better skills into better jobs, economic growth and social inclusion. This Strategy shifts the focus from traditional measures of skills, such as years of initial education and training or qualifications attained, to a much broader perspective that includes the skills people can acquire, use and maintain over their lifetime. Without sufficient investment in skills, people languish on the margins of society, technological progress does not translate into economic growth, and countries can no longer compete in an increasingly knowledge-based global market.

This is a problem involving also the respective authorities, as well as the leadership of universities and their departments. At the first step, it is necessary to evaluate what should be done by the responsible government institutions and their policies, and of course, what needs to be done by universities and the professors themselves.

Moreover, also students can contribute to the more successful development of their 21st century skills and competencies. The modern student is not a passive listener, who should simply remember the content of the professor’s lectures, but is an active partner in the process of reflection, discovery and development of competencies to resolve specific cases of practical nature. This is a much more demanding role, requiring from students lots of work and motivation, but has proven to be much more productive and rewarding.

Skills and qualities of contemporary university teachers

The intensity of changes in the 21st century – compared to earlier centuries – is the reason why nothing can be found in vast education literature referring to, for example, the “20th century skills”. And which are the 21st century skills required in the modern societal and technological environment to be developed already through education, including university, but also acquired through Life Long Learning?

Bri Stauffer has selected the following 12 skills, grouped into three categories.

Learning skills:

  1. critical thinking;
  2. creativity;
  3. collaboration;
  4. communication.

Literacy skills:

  1. information literacy;
  2. media literacy;
  3. technology literacy.

Life skills:

  1. flexibility;
  2. leadership;
  3. initiative;
  4. productivity;
  5. social skills.

The big question is how the teachers will be able to develop all these skills with their students. One general observation is necessary at the start, namely that in the past the professor/teacher was respected simply because of his/her position and academic status/title. This is no more the case – students must feel their professors' calibre, and his/her motive, in order to be accepted and respected for his/her capability to connect with them not only as a physical person, but also as a digital partner. And without it, professors will be perceived by students as knowledgeable people, but belonging to another time. And this will create a big gap, preventing the atmosphere needed for contemporary teaching/learning practice.

Here is some very useful proposals by an experienced 21st century teacher, a digital native, professor Tsisana Palmer, listing the major characteristics of a good 21st century professor:

  1. learner-centered classroom and personalized instruction;
  2. students as producers;
  3. learn new technologies;
  4. go global;
  5. be smart and use smartphones;
  6. blog;
  7. go digital;
  8. collaborate;
  9. use Twitter chats;
  10. connect;
  11. project-based learning;
  12. build your positive digital footprint;
  13. code;
  14. innovate;
  15. keep learning.

It is not difficult to realize that many of these features were not considered when people were deciding to follow a teaching career, and only recently some advanced universities are becoming aware that they determine to a large extent how successful a professor could be. Many of these qualities can be obtained through training and support – though natural inclinations of the respective person do make a difference. In other words, being a good professor has become more demanding than ever before!

The Norwegian higher education system

With some of the best research centers in Europe, the Nordic countries have always represented a special place for higher education. Together with academic excellence, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden combine the promise of equality, tolerance, and individual freedom: being labelled as the Scandinavian model of education. Such values are not only prized by the citizens but also shared by many international students.

This region of 27 million people has 1.3 million students, even 59 universities and 129 other higher education institutions. Government spending per tertiary education student is high: Sweden (US$20,000), Norway (US$19,500), followed by Denmark (US$16,000) and Finland (US$15,000), while Iceland spends US$ 10,000, but offers other benefits to encourage studies.

Norway has 9 universities, 8 university colleges and 5 scientific colleges owned by the state, besides a large number of private higher education institutions receiving public funding.

Although their institutions are few and relatively small compared to universities in many other countries in the world, they keep high standards and deliver quality education. In some fields, Norwegian institutions or academic communities are considered to be absolutely world-class. With the world's shortest working week, Norway pays its professors rather well: the annual cost of living adjusted average salary of professors is 59,000 € net, which is slightly higher only in Denmark with 61,000 € and 62,000 € in the USA.

Norwegian professors are entitled to training and coaching on new teaching methods – which undoubtedly makes an important difference in their own skills and achievement (at least 100 hours annually). As much of it is done in groups, it also contributes to a broader approach – beyond the boundaries of each individual subject and stimulates trans- and interdisciplinary perspective, which allows students to perceive the world in its complexity and interdependence.

Closing thoughts

The realization of the importance of equipping students with modern competencies and skills is making slow progress in most countries around the globe. Effective change cannot be expected to come only from within universities, though this is undoubtedly most important, and it will be most successful if it does not come primarily from the leaders – it has to be recognised by the professors themselves. This is a case where change should come as a result of higher awareness, commitment to change – and appropriate policies at national and university level. It is difficult to imagine that this battle will be victorious unless many other actors in society will also participate. And that involves the relevant ministry, public engagement of experts on pedagogy, employers, the students, as well as the media.

According to the recent report Narrowing the skills gap: Here’s what modern graduates lack there are – as a result of steps undertaken - some mixed results already registered. Employers are observing progress in the following skills: teamwork, technical skills, and interpersonal skills. On the other hand, they report the least satisfaction in negotiating skills, leadership, and commercial awareness.

One of the key questions is of course the level of government funding for university education. It should definitely not be under 0.40% of a country's GDP. Without the necessary financial resources, universities have no chance to attract and hire adequate people, who will do their jobs properly. Governments should be aware that funding science and education means the safest investment into their countries' future. In countries where this is not understood, universities will continue losing their best people and will be unable to hire adequate replacements – which means degradation. Exactly the opposite should be happening: universities should receive sufficient funding to be able to attract and keep the best people, who will make the best out of their students.

The other important message is that 21st century universities can expect to be able to play a very important role in modern society and its change processes only if they willingly accept a fully integrated position in these processes – which is not in contradiction with their autonomy.