Why university education is no longer confined to the campus - Dr Gillian Murray comment

Ahead of Heriot-Watt University’s future skills conference at Expo 2020 Dubai on December 8, here is a look at the new ways in which students of all ages are preparing for the jobs of tomorrow.

Many people think back to their university days with fond memories – their first time living away from home, their first time meeting classmates who would become friends for life, their first time singing karaoke at the students’ union bar. Yet student life for many is changing.

In the past, most students took a conventional path, entering higher education in their late teens or early 20s, but now many are learning from a distance rather than studying on campus or re-entering higher education while working full-time.

A large proportion of our students are now in their late 30s and early 40s. Instead of filing in and out of lecture theatres and the university library, they are learning online at a time to suit their busy lives, allowing them to juggle their careers, childcare, or looking after ageing parents.

Heriot-Watt University’s future skills conference is taking place at Expo 2020 Dubai this week. Picture: contributed.

By 2030, so-called “non-traditional” learners like these are predicted to overtake traditional, campus-based students. That growth is being driven in part by workers wanting to update their skills or complement the ones they already have to help them with their career goals alongside businesses keen to upskill their employees as the job market changes.

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Those non-traditional learners will be at the heart of our Future Skills Conference, which is taking place at Expo 2020 Dubai on December 8. Our day-long event will bring together experts from throughout the world to discuss the new ways in which students are learning, as well as the skills they will need in the jobs and industries of the future.

We’ll be discussing learning with a purpose – learning that will help to tackle the threats faced by the world, from the climate emergency through to coping with debilitating diseases like dementia. We’ll also be looking at the skills, the entrepreneurial mindset, and the need for lifelong learning to help our workforce grow the global economy.

Dr Gillian Murray is deputy principal for business and enterprise at Heriot-Watt University and chair of the Centre for Work-Based Learning. Picture: contributed.

Speakers at the event will include Datuk Yasmin Mahmood, widely known as Malaysia’s digital economy “ambassador” and appointed recently as chair of Heriot-Watt University Malaysia, which – along with our campus in Dubai – extends our reach around the globe.

Other participants include Khaled Ismail, a vice president at food packaging maker Tetra Pak, and Alison Watson, founder and chief executive at Class of Your Own, a social enterprise that has been teaching young people about the construction industry since 2009.

During the conference, we’ll be launching Heriot-Watt Online, our new education initiative that will open up learning to thousands of people throughout the world. This isn’t simply online learning; these are tailored courses that have been developed with businesses to fill current and future skills gaps.


Courses offered through Heriot-Watt Online will range from Masters degrees in subjects as diverse as data analytics, digital transformation, and supply-chain management and logistics through to undergraduate degrees and apprenticeships. Our university has a long history in this field, having delivered our online Masters degree in business administration (MBA) courses across 160 countries for the past 20 years.

Over the coming years, we aim to launch a further 20 Masters degree courses, stretching from business psychology, sustainable futures through to other emerging themes including energy transition. These courses will help students to develop the skills they need for their current jobs but also prepare them for the roles they’ll go on to fulfil in the future.

This is an area in which Scotland already leads the world, and there’s a growing economic opportunity for our nation here too. The global online degree market was valued at $36 billion (£27bn) in 2019 and is expected to nearly double in value to $74bn by 2025, according to education market intelligence firm HolonIQ 18.

The World Economic Forum predicts the global workforce will grow by 230 million people by 2030, with some two billion roles – half of today’s jobs – being transformed by decarbonisation, new technology, and the influence of growth industries.


Time is of the essence. A report by consultancy firm Korn Ferry found that more than 85 million jobs are likely to go unfilled by 2030 because people won’t have the right skills, costing the global economy $8.5 trillion.

Developing the right types of courses to help capitalise on these opportunities is only possible thanks to the innovative research being carried out by universities such as Heriot-Watt. Our ambitious Industrial Decarbonisation Research & Innovation Centre (IDRIC) – run by Professor Mercedes Maroto-Valer – is at the forefront of helping traditional industries to cut their emissions and tackle the climate emergency.

Our National Robotarium is developing technology to help humans stay safe by finding robotic solutions to decommissioning nuclear power stations, servicing offshore wind turbines, or navigating hazardous terrain for search and rescue following natural disasters.

These advances in areas such as robotics and artificial intelligence highlight why it’s so important for our students – no matter their age or location – to continue developing their skills. Digital technology has already touched so many aspects of our working lives and the next steps will be for machines to begin carrying out routine jobs, freeing up humans to develop new skills to tackle the world’s most pressing problems.

As our future skills conference at Expo 2020 Dubai approaches, our researchers and educators are continuing to develop the knowledge and understanding that they need to train both the current and next generation of students to help tackle the challenges facing the planet and harness the opportunities those challenges create. We hope you will join us on that journey.

Dr Gillian Murray, deputy principal for business and enterprise at Heriot-Watt University and chair of the Centre for Work-Based Learning.

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