With debate raging across the political spectrum on student fees, it’s more important than ever that we understand the links between higher education and employment. For it’s here, I’d argue, that the value of higher education is most directly felt; equipping students with the skills and capabilities they need to succeed in the workplace.

But as we do that, we can’t just look at the skills that are relevant today. Because we’re living through a period of unprecedented change, driven by digital and technological disruption that is changing our lives in so many ways.

For most commentators, that disruption leads inexorably to the ‘rise of the robot’, forcing millions of people out of work. But the studies that support this view tend to focus exclusively on the impact of automation, without taking account of other key trends – like globalisation, political uncertainty, urbanisation and demographic change.

This prompted Pearson, in partnership with Nesta and the Oxford Martin School, to undertake a major new piece of research, which for the first time offers a path through the “doom and gloom”, giving a blueprint for navigating the future world of jobs and skills. To do that, we combined expert human intelligence with algorithmic machine analysis of evolving skill requirements. The result? A far more nuanced and positive picture of the future.

Our study finds that whilst 20% of the workforce are in occupations likely to shrink, around 10% are in occupations that are predicted to grow – in sectors such as education and healthcare, where technology will support an improvement in outcomes, not a reduction in workforce. As for the remaining 70%? Well they are in jobs where we simply can’t know for certain what will happen; but we do know that many of these jobs will require redesign, and many of these people will therefore need retraining.

“Robots aren’t taking our jobs, but technology is changing our labour markets, meaning we need to re-evaluate the skills employers and individuals need – and update our education systems to deliver them.”

So robots aren’t taking our jobs, but technology is changing our labour markets, meaning we need to re-evaluate the skills employers and individuals need – and update our education systems to deliver them. In the future world of work, uniquely human skills are going to be in demand – perceptiveness, judgement, originality, decision-making. And complementary skill and knowledge areas will help ensure success – so future computer programmers will likely need to understand design skills, just as stem cell experts will also need to understand ethics.

The overarching takeaway? We need to act and skill up to prepare for the future. This is an exciting message. If we get it right it means enabling more of today’s students to succeed in the labour markets of tomorrow. But it’s also a challenge. We have to act – ensuring our education systems are fit for purpose, better connecting education with the world of work.

And as the pace of change accelerates, we can’t just focus on those students entering college or university for the first time, we must also consider recent graduates, and those already in work who want to, or need to reskill and retrain. Here we know for certain that more flexible, affordable and effective pathways will be key.

This is where at Pearson we think technology can help – creating opportunities to make learning more affordable, more accessible, more flexible, more personal and more effective. We certainly don’t see this as a panacea – great teaching and learning starts with great teachers, and with great pedagogy.

But done well, and with the right focus on outcomes, we do believe technology can help expand access, drive improved outcomes and strengthen the links between the worlds of learning and earning – providing more opportunities for people to continue their studies whilst they work.

That’s why, for example, we’re so focussed on online degrees, working in partnership with leading universities to take their degree programmes fully online. Because online meets the needs of an increasing population of learners who are looking to study more flexibly – so learners looking to study whilst in work, or whilst caring for family, or to get a promotion or switch careers, or simply to remain skilled in their current roles.

We’re excited about the potential of our research – it gives us a much better understanding of the knowledge areas and skills that students need to develop to help their career readiness. That’s incredibly powerful, as it means we can act right here, right now – ensuring we help learners to skill up for the jobs of the future.

Get this right, and we’ll ensure that the future isn’t a choice between human or machine; it’s about human and machine. In a world of uncertainty, we can shape our own destiny, if we act and skill up now for the jobs of the future.

andymoss pearson By Andy Moss,Senior Vice President Higher Education, Pearson Plc