Education as a successful tool

  • Education
  • Sunday, 15 Dec 2019

During the first industrial revolution, education was a successful tool for progress, success and social mobility because our institutions recognised the importance of developing cognitive labour. -

WHAT will matter most when solving the world’s biggest challenges? In a recent BBC documentary about Russia’s President Putin, Ian Robertson, the founding director of Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, was quoted as saying: “The psychological and the personal now play a much bigger role in international politics”.

According to him, this is because “the old certainties, the old tectonic plates of ideology and of interests between blocs are all gone and we are now in a system where individual human psychology and personality play much more of a role.”

Robertson was commenting on the importance of personality and emotional intelligence for global political leaders seeking to accomplish their national objectives and achieve influence on the world stage. This trend is not unique to world politics; on the contrary, leaders of all organisations will need to be just as equipped for the future.

Whatever endeavour we undertake, we as humans use a combination of three types of labour, namely:

1. Physical labour, which refer to our ability to perform manual, skilled and precision physical work;

2. Cognitive labour, which stems from our ability to think. This ranges from our capacity for memory, analysis and critical thinking to the pinnacle of creativity and innovation; and

3. Emotional labour, which refers to our unique ability to be self-aware, have a sense of purpose as well as build trust, empathise and connect with other people.

Since the dawn of civilisation, we have been on a journey to replace ourselves with technology.

The first industrial revolution saw machines replacing the majority of physical labour. This destroyed many manual jobs but created more and better jobs that harnessed human cognitive labour. For the past three centuries, education has focused on developing cognitive skills that provided a robust foundation to secure employability.

We live today in the age of the fourth industrial revolution, a time that is characterised by high levels of automation and artificial intelligence. Computers can now play chess and perform a medical diagnosis better than we can. The jury is still out on whether the fourth industrial revolution will end up creating more and better jobs, in the way the first one did.

Some experts believe that the fourth industrial revolution will eventually create more, different and better jobs, not only for those losing theirs but also for the growing number of human beings occupying our planet. Others, on the other hand, are less optimistic and think it is different this time, and that technology, while increasing productivity and overall wealth, will result in massive unemployment.

I would like to argue that the impact of the fourth industrial revolution on employment will depend on the direction in which education moves. Consider the third category of labour listed above, emotional labour. No machine can match human capability here. I believe that in order to develop graduates who are able to tame technology, rather than be enslaved by it, universities in this century need to focus on cultivating three domains

1.Academic excellence;

2. Emotional intelligence; and

3. Happiness.

This will be necessary, I suggest, not only to achieve career success, but also to maintain the mental well-being of our youth in a time where mental health issues are becoming a global epidemic.

In order to develop resilient and purpose-led graduates who are able to harness change and employ technology to add real value, Heriot-Watt University Malaysia is introducing the “Empower” Programme, a structured four-level programme that takes students on a journey to develop the skills of (1) Leading Self, (2) Leading Teams, (3) Leading Communities and (4) Leading Enterprise.

The Programme has the following six developmental strands.

1. Global Citizenship, Leadership & Impact.This is cultivated through meaningful global experiences that will result in the development of a Global Perspective as well as the honing of the individual’s Leadership Style.

2. Emotional Intelligence, Resilience & Happiness.Students will enhance their Emotional Intelligence and develop Resilience and Happiness.

3. People skills.Students will develop People Skills that will enable them to remain Effective, Connected & Relevant. This includes the cultivation of Social Capital and Economic


4. Entrepreneurship, Innovation & Creativity.The Creativity, Innovation & Entrepreneurial Potential of the students will be developed through practical and impactful exercises.

5. Critical Thinking & Decision Making.Students will learn how the Brain works and use that to build Critical Mental Habits that will enable them to Think Critically & Make Decisions Effectively

6. Employability & Industrial Relevance.Students will study in an Industry Relevant environment that will enhance their Experience and Employability Potential.

During the first industrial revolution, education was a successful tool for progress, success and social mobility because our institutions recognised the importance of developing cognitive labour.

Today, we have a similar historic opportunity that we need to seize by recognising that developing emotional labour is key.

H. G. Wells said that “Civilisation is in a race between education and catastrophe.” By making the right strategic decisions today, I am confident that education can win!


Provost and CEO

Heriot-Watt University Malaysia

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