Many higher education institutions are currently planning for a September intake whose entire university teaching experience could be almost completely taught online. Depending on subject and discipline this will be more or less of a challenge.

Apart from the logistical challenges that come with learning and acquiring certain skills via a computer, students may now also face additional obstacles and difficulties as a result of remote studying. Even if remote studying methods and technologies can live up to the same standard as campus-based education in terms of quality and learning possibilities the home part of home learning can become an issue. The campus experience provides more than just a place for studying. It is also an important contributor to developing soft skills. Two main questions arise; how and where will students now develop the soft skills usually obtained on campus and what new soft skills will the new normal labour market demand?

Research shows that soft skills are becoming increasingly important to employers. At the same time soft skills have been articulated as a significant skill gap even in highly technical professions such as data analytics. In an article in Financial Times Chris Davies, founder of Graduate Coach says that “Employability experience is the new key discriminator, not whether you got a first from Bristol university”. There is hence no doubt that the future of soft skills an important challenge we must tackle.

Some highly demanded soft skills such as creativity or collaboration might not suffer from remote learning as much as more general ones such as maturity and understanding of cultural differences. Personal development and increased levels of socio-communicative skills are soft skills recognised in students having participated in the EU ERASMUS exchange program. The personal development and self-sufficiency gained from moving somewhere and being forced to adapt, be more independent and encounter new cultures and diverse opinions are experiences students will encounter on campus even when not going abroad.

The challenges to graduate soft skills might therefore be different from the soft skill development and demand in more senior employees who might have already developed these characteristics and attributes.

When teaching university courses remotely the challenge for universities is not only technology-related but also involves how to support students to develop the soft skills that contribute to making them employable. This will be especially important now when a lot of graduate employment schemes and opportunities are withdrawn due to the effects of COVID-19. Many universities such as Nottingham and Reading, offer help and advice to support their students during the crisis by suggesting ways to develop skills online, sharing remote experience resources and sites listing employers still looking for graduates among other tips and support. As students will not have the chance to develop soft skills by participating in activities on campus, collaborations between universities and businesses and additional efforts by all three parties (universities, businesses and students) will be of importance shaping graduates ready for post Covid-19 careers.

Soft skills are by definition transferable skills and possible to develop in different ways, say by working alongside studying or volunteering. However, this will be a challenge for students already facing greater barriers in higher education where, for example, they are carers for family members or relatives, single parents or suffering from domestic violence. In the absence of a campus experience the pressure to volunteer or have an additional job might be yet another challenge adding to the disadvantages they face compared to more privileged peers – if it’s possible for them at all. At the same time, many companies are developing alternative working arrangements and new ways of working that might benefit otherwise challenged groups in particular. According to a survey conducted by the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) many employers still do not know how or if Covid-19 will affect their hiring plans. As a student it might therefore be a good idea to take another look at the career employability advice and support given by the universities.

When we consider whether the class of 2023 will be lacking soft skills we must also bear in mind to what extent the employment world has changed due to social distancing, remote home working and the introduction of remote webinars, meetings and conferences. This could mean that the soft skills of today may not be the soft skills of 2025, or even the soft skills of tomorrow. Skills such as digital literacy, video conference facilitation or the ability to be productive at home in spite of the many distractions home-working brings might be skills employers value even more than before. This means we might see a change in the discourse of soft skills. The need for soft skills is usually discussed in relation to automation and AI and other technological changes in the production. Following Covid-19, the changed working environments and a new emphasis on staff wellbeing, soft skills may gain a wider importance and be increasingly considered as a desired attribute connected to notions like work-life integration (in contrast to work-life balance ) and employee mental health.

The question however, remains: are employers ready for a graduating class that may have studied their entire degree online and if not, whose responsibility is it to bridge the gap?

Read more about the future of skills and the impact of Covid-19: