Universities fail to give graduates right skills – Italian CEO

Academia should look to business-linked Israeli universities as a model for change, according to energy boss Francesco Starace

November 16, 2021
Candidates waiting for a job interview

Many leading universities are failing to update their courses to ensure that students are equipped to compete in fast-changing job markets, the chief executive of Europe’s largest energy company has claimed.

Francesco Starace, who has led the Italy-based utility company Enel since 2014, told the Reinventing Higher Education conference in Rome that he believed too many universities were not committed to changing their curricula to reflect the skills and competencies demanded by industry.

“What universities teach today is at risk of being obsolete much faster than it was five or 10 years ago,” Mr Starace told the event at the Luiss Guido Carli university, which is being held in association with Madrid’s IE University and its IE Foundation.

Mr Starace, whose company employs some 67,000 people and, with annual revenues of €65 billion (£55 billion), is among the 100 largest corporations in the world by revenue, said a large body of higher education institutions globally either “ignored” the problem or “understand it a bit more” but were content to allow current teaching practices to “continue for another year or more”.

“There are some which understand what is at stake and are trying to correct mistakes,” argued Mr Starace, who added that “other universities are revisiting what works and [will] drive that forward”.

Israel’s universities, which have successfully brought industry experts on to campus for years, creating an innovative culture responsible for many successful technology companies, was a good blueprint for how universities might work, he said.

“Everywhere you go in Israel, you find that same blend of academic institutions, policymakers and entrepreneurship,” said Mr Starace.

The growing focus on climate change within universities would not, in itself, lead to transformational change, which required more radical self-assessment by university leaders, he also argued.

“After COP26, we are high on climate, and it is an incredibly unifying platform but nothing else,” said Mr Starace.

“Things are not happening just because we are concerned about climate change – there are bigger forces that will push us [to make changes],” he added.

Francesca Bria, president of the Italian National Innovation Fund, which has invested more than €1.6 billion in technology companies and business start-up clusters, and will invest about €5 billion over the next few years, said she would be keen to see university-based researchers include students in their efforts with industry to solve social problems, particularly around improving urban life.

“There are a number of ways they could be collaborating – sharing traffic or pollution data, [or] leading on modelling related to real-world problems,” said Dr Bria, who is an associate professor and senior adviser on technology and innovation policy at UCL.

That theme of change was later taken up by Valery Katkalo, first vice-rector at HSE University, in Moscow, who explained that his institution was moving to project-based assessment.

“We are asking students to solve problems to which there are no answers in the textbook,” said Professor Katkalo, who added that the university would increasingly be looking to employ more people from industry or the medical world, rather than relying on academic staff.

“We are facing major changes to the spectrum of professionals that we need [for teaching],” he said.


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