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How should we prepare UK business students to become digital ready business leaders?

Xue Zhou, Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary University of London Xianghan (Christine) O’Dea, Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary University of London

The background

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated digital transformation of business processes across different sectors. This is because when businesses were forced to operate predominately online, employees – regardless of their occupation and level of digital skills – had to learn and adopt various digital technologies to enable them to complete their daily work. In this situation, what were perceived to be the traditional non-digital occupations did not exist anymore, as digital skills are embedded in pretty much all occupations and across different career fields. In this blog, we will discuss the importance for UK universities to develop the digital technology skills of business students so that they are ready for industry.

As with higher education, there is also an ongoing debate in business sectors on the future of work – in other words, whether and how to integrate digital technologies in business operations in the post-Covid era. Although no consensus agreement has been achieved, it is fairly clear that businesses increasingly require and expect their employees to have a good level of digital skills. This may include basic IT skills/computer literacy, such as office and business processing skills, and/or advanced IT skills such as industry-specific software skills. Nevertheless, the digital skills gap is becoming a huge concern for employers. According to the most recent UK employer skills survey conducted in 2019, 38 per cent of employers found a deficiency in digital skills among their workforce, and, as a result, put upskilling the workforce with digital skills as the key priority (Winterbotham et al., 2020).

‘38 per cent of employers found a deficiency in digital skills among their workforce, and, as a result, put upskilling the workforce with digital skills as the key priority.’

Have we equipped students with the level of digital skills required in industry?

In the UK, we (academic tutors) are naturally confident with our students’ digital competence. On the one hand, this is because most of them are gen Z. They grew up with technology and are considered digital natives. On the other hand, universities have integrated digital literacy in curriculum design, aiming to equip students with the digital skills required in industry. However, there seems to be a gap between digital employability training provided at university and the actual expectations of the future employers. In our recent study – which aims to investigate whether our business students in the UK are equipped with a good level of digital employability skills – several cases have been reported that university graduates are unable to use the basic Microsoft packages, even though they said that they could on their CVs. In addition, based on the YouGov employer survey, 24 per cent of employers in the UK are struggling to recruit employees with the basic digital skills that they want (such as compose an email or web-based communication), and 41 per cent of them have found it hard to recruit employees with advanced digital skills (such as digital marketing and data processing). Meanwhile, some alumni in our study reflected on their education journey in university and felt that the current curriculum relating to digital employability was too theoretical and did not provide them with many opportunities to develop practical and more advanced digital skills (such as programming and information and communication technology skills). This may potentially raise the alarm on the effectiveness of the related training and support provided at universities.

How can university better prepare students to be digital ready business leaders?

Business students are viewed as the next generation business leaders and are likely to lead and manage digitalisation and automation continuously in industry in the future. It is therefore necessary for them to develop a sufficient level of digital skills. Even though many employers do provide on-job and off-job training to ensure that graduates can take up their jobs at a fast pace, not all – in particular SMEs – have the capacity and financial power to support such training activities.

It is therefore vital for universities to take more responsibility and help students develop digital technology employability skills and get ready for the future competitive job market. Simply put, business schools should consider updating their existing curriculum, putting more effort into digital skills training and providing more opportunities for students to develop their practical skills. Some detailed recommendations include the following. First, students should be guided to do a reality check to understand the essential digital skills required in their preferred sector and their current skill gap. Second, students should be supported to develop their awareness of the new emerging changes in the technological landscape, so that they can keep upskilling themselves continuously. And finally, digital skills training – such as Microsoft Office training and digital literacy training on the LinkedIn learning platform – should be supported by the university and included in both core-curriculum and extra-curriculum design.


Winterbotham, M., Kik, G., Selner, S., Menys, R., Stroud, S., & Whittaker, S. (2020). Employer skills survey 2019. Department for Education.