Get real redefining the purpose of a university education

Simone Buitendijk
University of Leeds
5 min readJul 5, 2021


Many of us remember how, as students, we’d often wonder how we would apply what we were learning in order to pass our exams, in a real job. Active learning can help our students chart a course for the future with more clarity.

View of steps up to an archway, surrounded by plants and flowers.
Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorkshire

As a young student going through medical school in the Netherlands, I kept thinking that one day, before graduation, I would understand it all and be a good doctor. That magic moment never came. As the end of my studies drew nearer, I started to realise that I would not be “finished” any time soon, and I certainly was not yet the knowledgeable doctor I had imagined I should be by that time.

Those of us who have been in the workplace for a while, and have the benefit of hindsight, now know how naïve we were to think that we would be fully developed by the time we left university. We are also aware how important the notion of “life-long learning” is, since new developments influence the way most jobs are being shaped. If we don’t move with the times, we will not realise our full potential and, as a result, will not remain valuable workers, nor professionally fulfilled.

So what then is the role of higher education, if learning is life-long by definition? I believe we give our university students the wrong answer to this most essential question. We do not provide them with enough of an idea what actual real-life work is like, and that is a huge missed opportunity. If they have only a vague notion of the steps they need to take to contribute to society as graduates, they will study less effectively while at university. Also, if we don’t teach them early that learning never stops, they will be too focused on getting their degree, and will not think enough about what they may use it for.

“It is time universities start teaching students in ways that more resemble the actual workplace.”

I believe that, implicitly or explicitly, for students and teachers alike university education is still viewed as mainly about the transmission of facts, and about assessments to ensure those facts have been learned. There are two major flaws with this model. The first is that in most workplaces, teamwork, collaboration and outputs that are important for the employer are what matters, not the results of a test. When we teach students to pass relatively arbitrary individual assessments, we may be testing their intelligence and their stamina, but we are not setting them up for success in real life. The second flaw is that facts, learned this way, don’t stay in people’s brains long enough to be mastered and applied. The only way for us to retain, internalise and learn to use expert knowledge is to apply it, try different ways of utilising it, make mistakes, and then try again via a different route. In short, to learn just as we do in real life.

It is time universities start teaching students in ways that more resemble the actual workplace. That does not mean university studies need to be vocational. On the contrary, the importance of understanding the value of the latest research and of evidence-based thinking; of questioning accepted approaches; and of gathering data before making up one’s mind, can never be overstated. These are, incidentally, all prerequisites for the graduate workplace. We can’t leave it solely to employers to teach our recent graduates what the real workplace is like. We have a duty to prepare our students better and to let them practice on real life problems, in a safe space.

“We urgently need to move away from knowledge transmission and fact-based teaching and assessments, to so-called active learning methods.”

If, early-on, students have a clearer picture of the range of potential careers they may have after graduation, they will be more accustomed to life-long learning while still at university. And it will become easier for universities to play a prominent role in upskilling people who are already in jobs, which is so crucial for modern societies. After all, if our teaching is more geared towards real problems, it can more easily be applied to on-campus and professional learners alike.

This means we urgently need to move away from knowledge transmission and fact-based teaching and assessments to so-called active learning methods. Under this approach, students get presented with facts before, or during, their classroom sessions, but then engage actively with the materials to find answers to the complex problems put in front of them. Peer learning and group work are important tools. They create a motivating environment in which different (cultural) backgrounds and viewpoints are rightly seen as an asset, instead of a potential problem. Active learning also works well in settings where students from different disciplinary backgrounds must pool their knowledge to solve complex issues.

“Our students deserve to have more than a vague idea of their journey ahead. They also deserve to understand early on what learning is about.”

Active learning delivers better learning outcomes for students and, equally importantly, it resembles real working life. If universities start to think about education differently, they can serve their full time students better, offer their teaching in more modular ways, and provide greater flexibility to people in jobs who need to learn the latest developments in their areas of expertise.

So, our students deserve to have more than a vague idea of their journey ahead. They also deserve to understand early on what learning is about and that, because it never stops, they can apply their skills in many different types of jobs after graduation.

I certainly would have been less stressed and more confident had I known during my medical studies that I had many possibilities other than clinical work. At the time, I had no idea I could use my degree for a job in epidemiology and public health. I am glad I stumbled upon that career, not only because I loved it, but because, serendipitously and through a lot of learning on the job, it got me to the position I am in now. I hope I can help future generations feel a bit more confident during their university years of the many different and exciting options they will have as graduates to give back to the world.