Comment & Analysis
Apr 2, 2017

Universities Must Master Challenge of Uncertainty to Teach Students

Today, at least as much as any other point in history, a changing world makes predicting future demand for particular skills impossible.

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By The Editorial Board

The Provost, Patrick Prendergast, this week found himself paying a visit to Dominican College Sion Hill in Blackrock, where he gave an address as just one of the many parents of students at the school. In the course of his explanation of what a university education, and more specifically, a Trinity education, should comprise, Prendergast gave his own take on the “must-have skills for today’s graduates”.

In doing so, he noted the need for graduates to be adaptable, and able to deal with an uncertain job market that will probably require them to fulfill diverse roles over the course of their working lives. He described the world of work that will face graduates both today and in the future as “significantly more entrepreneurial, global and technological”, stressing that “the pace of change is far more rapid”. In light of this, there was an acknowledgement that instead of being able to teach specific skills for specific tasks, Trinity “can only prepare [students] to be adaptive to the change that we know will be part of their working lives”.

This admission is something upon which any student edging closer and closer towards graduation should reflect. The lecturers and teachers to whom we have entrusted our education find themselves unable to anticipate what skills they will need to teach us and what kind of tasks they are preparing us for. The fact that lecturers, as well as students, are today, to some extent at least, blundering along into the unknown is not something we have traditionally associated with the process of education.


But how it could be any other way seems equally improbable. How can we be taught today to manipulate technologies that have not yet been discovered, explain phenomena that seem like abstract predictions or appraise rules that have not yet been set? We live in an uncertain world, but it is not clear that this is unique to our time. Every generation must have a touch of chronocentrism – of feeling that they stand on the cusp of historic change. Previous generations of students probably shared the feeling that they were dealing with things that their parents did not need to overcome, and needing skills whose exact nature was not yet clear.

This does not necessarily make any clearer the exact skills that graduates may one day need. It may simply be the case, however, that universities are not supposed to chase specific and fleeting skills or jobs as targets, but rather to teach their graduates how to deal with inevitable uncertainty and change.