Ulf-Daniel Ehlers

The Corona crisis makes one thing clear: the conditions under which we organise education can change quickly. Faster and more radically than we previously thought possible. While digitisation has so far been seen as a challenge that we must sensibly address and that must be shaped for the future, the current situation leaves no stone unturned in this respect. After the shutdown – and may it pass quickly – digitisation will no longer be an option in educational institutions – it will become a self-evident cultural technique. But it is not only the organisation of education that is currently under scrutiny. Behind this lies the more profound question of what goals and content we are using to prepare young people for a society that is increasingly ready for radical and disruptive changes to its respective systemic conditions. The concept of “future skills” is currently discussed and much sought for all over the world. It is out of that reason why we have created a focal point in our research activities to advance insights into what future skills are and how they can be supported.

What we notice it that Future Skills as a term has contributed to a decisive change of the public discussion about higher education, which we refer to as the Future Skills Turn. To examine this turn and its implications for the future of higher education is the purpose of our studies. As a concept, Future Skills has gained an importance similar to that which emerged in the seventies of the last century from ideas such as equal opportunities or science orientation in European education.

Such guiding principles usually do not appear as precisely tailored and empirically operationalized concepts, but rather as conceptual condensations of broadly diversified bundles of arguments and objectives – equally in the public, the political and the scientific discourse.

The starting point for the enormous career of the Future Skills concept is the insight that current concepts of higher education do not meet the urgent needs of our societies with convincing future concepts. Neither they are fit to help sustain our environment nor associated social or economic challenges. While social challenges are exacerbated by an accelerating process of globalization and digital advancement, at the same time these are the very forces that enable a multitude of new options for human development. In this situation of digital acceleration, the characteristic feature is that of uncertainty and the inevitable necessity is that of creative responsibility. It is a platitude that the future is unpredictable, however we must be prepared to shape it.

In ten to twelve years’ time, children who attend primary school next year will be entering vocational training or higher education, and in fifteen years’ time they will be the new professionals who as young citizens take over the responsibility in our society. We know little about this future. In the year 2060-2065 they are likely to retire, end their employment and/ or cease working. About this future we do not know anything. Our schools must prepare them for jobs that do not yet exist, for technologies and applications that have not yet been invented, for living in a society whose social structures we cannot foresee today, and for dealing with challenges that are not yet discernible. It is our shared responsibility to make the most of the opportunities and find ways to deal with this uncertain future. It is about nothing more and nothing less than the preservation of our planet and our livelihoods.

Solving social problems, such as those associated with climate change, the challenges of migration, which will continue to increase in the future, the conflicts arising from populist social and political drafts and the associated question of the future of our democracies – all this requires the ability to develop new and so far unknown approaches, to tread new paths and to relate the hitherto unconnected to one another in a new way. In education and science, this will only succeed if we work inter- and transdisciplinarily in the best sense of the word, to compile solutions and contributions of each of the disciplines and sciences, to reflect critically on them and to relate them to one another. This, however, is a big challenge. Higher education Institutions are struggling with it because they all share a common handicap: The history of science, research and thus also of higher education is a history of “silo-ism”, specialisation and differentiation of disciplines – the almost 18,000 degree programmes offered at German higher education institutions alone are proof of this. The old institution of higher education is faced with the challenge of having to reinvent itself – in a time when academic education is experiencing an enormous growth process and is projected to reach 70 percent plus of an age cohort worldwide by 2050. It’s like having to replace the pilot in a car race, right in the middle of a steep turn and during a risky overtaking manoeuvre.


The research project NextSkills aims at finding models and descriptions for future relevant skills, so-called Future Skills, within the framework of a multi-method- ological research design and through international consultations.1 Future Skills should be the skills that enable university graduates to master the challenges of the future in the best possible way. The results show that to deal with future challenges, students must develop curiosity, imagination, vision, resilience and self-confidence, as well as the ability to act in a self-organised way. They must be able to understand and respect the ideas, perspectives and values of others, and they must be able to deal with mistakes and regressions, while at the same time progressing with care, even against difficulties.

In numerous conversations, interviews and analyses, it became clear to us that Future Skills must also strive to raise awareness for local and global challenges; to raise awareness and become mindful of how climate change impacts on nature and the environment – and to focus with greatest attention on how students can acquire skills to participate in societal contexts in order reduce or reverse these impacts. It is also about shaping social issues such as demographic- or migration challenges.

Promoting Future Skills also means to strive for creating an educational sys- tem that enables future citizens to deal with the challenges involved and to care for greater coherence in society, to value openness, tolerance and an awareness of differences and diversity, and not to succumb to populist explanations. It became clear to us that the question of how young people can be empowered to participate in social systems and processes, and how we can strengthen justice, peace and the integrity of creation and community as values in a future society, will determine the relevance of our higher education Institutions in the future.

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