AAC&U News, August 2019
Facts & Figures

Is Higher Education Rising to the AI Challenge?

As artificial intelligence (AI) begins to change the global economy, many workers may need training or education to update their skills to be competitive in the workforce. With responses from more than 10,000 adults in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, a new report from Gallup and Northeastern University, Facing the Future: U.S., U.K. and Canadian Citizens Call for a Unified Skills Strategy for the AI Age, includes troubling results for higher education: few people, especially in the United States, have confidence in US colleges and universities to prepare them for jobs of the future.

Building the Skills for an Artificial Intelligence Economy

  • In all three countries, survey respondents are concerned that AI will affect the job market. Majorities in all three countries (71 percent in the United States, 60 percent in the United Kingdom, and 61 percent in Canada) believe that the increased use of AI will eliminate more jobs than it creates.
  • However, people in the United States are more optimistic about their own chances. Just 17 percent of the “employed public is ‘very worried’ or ‘somewhat worried’ that they might lose their jobs due to AI adoption,” the report said. Workers in the United Kingdom (34 percent) and Canada (37 percent) are twice as likely to be concerned.
  • Forty-two percent of Americans believe the skills they have now will never become outdated. The rest believe that their skills are already outdated (9 percent) or will be outdated within one year (less than 1 percent), in one to four years (9 percent), in five to nine years (17 percent), or in ten years or more (22 percent).
  • Americans are evenly split about the skills they think will be required to adapt to AI: half believe that “softer skills such as teamwork, communication, creativity and critical thinking” are the most important, while another half believe it will take “harder skills like math, science, coding and the ability to work with data.”

Where Workers Turn for Training

  • In the United States, few respondents believe that higher education (25 percent), the government (22 percent), large businesses (29 percent), or small- and medium-sized businesses (36 percent) are “doing enough to address the need for career-long learning and training” (see fig. 1).
  • According to the report, “no more than four in 10 workers” in the three countries “considered returning to school in response to AI,” with just 26 percent of Americans considering returning to school.

Figure 1.



  • Rather than turning to higher education for training to complement outdated skills, respondents in all three countries said they would prefer “on-the-job training or other training offered by an employer” (see fig.2).
  • A majority of respondents also think that employers should be the ones responsible for paying for “retraining programs for workers who lose their jobs because of new technology, automation, robots, or artificial intelligence.”

Figure 2.

Figure 1_no3.png

Low Confidence in Colleges and Universities

  • The report cites low confidence in higher education’s ability to prepare graduates for the workforce as “one of the key factors that likely impacts workers’ willingness to look to higher education as their first choice for new skills and education.”
  • People in the United Kingdom (38 percent) and Canada (48 percent) are much more likely than Americans (22 percent) to mostly or strongly agree that colleges and universities “do a good job preparing students for jobs of the future.”
  • Americans also have lower opinions of how the colleges and universities in the United States measure up with those around the world. According to the report, just 33 percent of Americans say “their institutions of higher learning are among the best in the world,” compared with 58 percent in Canada and 49 percent in the United Kingdom.
  • The survey identified several reasons that people believe that “traditional four-year universities [are] not the best equipped to provide career-long education and retraining.” In the United States, cost was the main reason people do not look to higher education or training, followed by feelings that “academic programs do not keep up with changing workplace needs” or that “learning isn’t hands-on enough” (see fig. 3).
  • Cost and a lack of time were cited as the biggest barriers to seeking new education or skills training by people in all three countries. In the United States, Americans were more likely than people from the other two countries to cite cost (65 percent) and lack of time (61 percent) as factors.

Figure 3.


Is There Hope for Higher Ed?

  • The report did find a few areas of hope for higher education. More than a third of Americans (35 percent) believe that a college degree “is more important now than a decade ago,” and 30 percent believe it will be more important than it is now after another decade.
  • The changing economy also provides “a clear opportunity for leaders in higher education” to partner with businesses and governments in providing “affordable, relevant, bite-sized, lifelong education to workers in all three countries,” the report says. “Colleges and universities with the audacity to change represent humanity’s best chance to rise to the challenge of AI and win the jobs of the future.”

HR Managers Weigh In

In addition to the survey, the report also features interview responses from human resource managers at ten companies in the three countries. Several said that their companies are changing the way they hire and no longer only hire people with college degrees. At IBM, for example, 15 percent of their new hires do not have a four-year degree. “We have had great experience with folks coming right out of high school and community college or from another occupation. They have contemporary tech skills and come from diverse backgrounds. After their first year, they’re often outperforming people with college degrees,” said Diane Gherson, chief human resources officer at IBM. “Universities need to rethink higher education. For example, should it still be four years? Is that the best use of people’s time? And is this model sufficiently affordable for the vast majority of people?”

Images in this article are included by permission of Gallup from Facing the Future: U.S., U.K. and Canadian Citizens Call for a Unified Skills Strategy for the AI Age, their 2019 report with Northeastern University.

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


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