“Economists who have studied the relationship between education and economic growth confirm what common sense suggests: the number of college degrees is not nearly as important as how well students develop cognitive skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving ability.” – Derek Bok

In today’s fast-paced business environment, paper qualifications are simply not enough. Employers are looking for something extra because the problems they face demand it. That’s why the need for “critical thinking” skills appear so often, everywhere from job advertisements to business conferences to global forums. But what is critical thinking and why is it so indispensable today?

There are many definitions of “critical thinking”, but simply put, it is a process through which problems are identified and analysed so they may be solved in an effective and efficient manner. It means re-evaluating conventional and existing approaches to problems, seeing if they make sense, and applying changes if necessary. It’s the idea that problems are insurmountable only if we fail to think outside of the box.

Pic: University of Western Australia

Critical thinking can be broken into six stages. The first stage is to observe. This involves determining what information is available, and through what means. Then information is gathered for the next stage – analyse. That’s when you arrange the information into digestible themes and arguments.

Next, you evaluate what you have – you separate fact from opinion, and you decide what’s important and what’s not. After all, information is useless if you don’t establish some priorities – first and foremost, ask yourself if what you’ve gathered answers your core question. For example, how can I reduce costs without harming productivity?

Following this, you question your assumptions – are there better alternatives to your approach or better explanations of the issue? Be sure to contextualize the information you’re dealing with, considering everything from culture to politics and ethics. For example, if you’re launching a marketing campaign, have you considered how locals would react to a translated slogan or catch phrase? Finally, you come to the reflection stage – that’s when you put your plan to the test, making changes and learning as you take stock of the outcome.

But critical thinking is more than just a theoretical concept. It can be the difference between a stagnant career and a fruitful professional life. Because so many people have bachelor’s and master’s degrees these days, displaying a strong streak in critical thinking will allow you to stand out from your peers. Showing that you’ve solved problems for previous employers strengthens your hand when applying for new jobs. Suggesting opportunities and solutions to your boss will help when negotiating for higher pay.

Pic: University of Auckland

These days, giving presentations and selling ideas to clients and bosses are not infrequent duties, but part of the job description. While those may be intimidating activities, those with the ability to think critically should be able to undertake them with ease. That person will be able to field difficult questions from clients and superiors, and converse intelligently with them, lessening any chance of embarrassment and making strong, positive impressions on the people that really matter in your career.

Because the business environment is frequently fluid and decisions must be made quickly, critical thinking is essential in avoiding costly mistakes and groupthink. One must be able to consider every aspect of a business plan, marketing campaign, or research project, and plan for contingencies. As it is often said, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Things don’t always go according to plan, but if you’re able to quickly pivot away from disaster, you’ll always be valued by employers.

Critical thinking is also the key driver behind all innovation, and is extremely useful when confronting the two great monsters that plague every decision-maker in every industry – costs and time. If you can find a way to achieve objectives even while using less resources and/or time, you’ll be the darling of every manager and client you meet. But you won’t get there unless you think differently and think critically – unless you consider all the alternatives no matter improbable.

Pic: Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Because of all the reasons listed above, universities have poured much time and effort into incorporating critical thinking lessons into their curricula. While traditionally associated with the humanities and social sciences, critical thinking is now a cornerstone of most academic programs – whether undergraduate or postgraduate – from business to marketing to engineering.

Read on to find out more about 10 universities that prioritize instilling the power of critical thinking in their graduates:

The University of Western Australia (UWA) is what you get when you merge top-tier academics and a supportive environment which emphasizes critical thinking as well as personal growth. A proud member of the Group of Eight, which consists of Australia’s most respected universities, UWA’s academic prestige has been repeatedly recognized by independent organizations. For example, QS World University Rankings 2015/16 named it among the top 100 universities in the world.

As a research-intensive institution, UWA has shown exceptional affinity with the Arts, and it has been rated with 5 Stars for teaching quality and overall satisfaction by The Good Universities Guide 2016 for Humanities and Social Sciences. They have also ranked between 51 – 100 in the QS Rankings for Anthropology, Archaeology, English Language And Literature And Performing Arts.

The Faculty of Arts has an inspiring history of highly successful graduates and outstanding research results, which have made a valuable contribution to Western Australia, Australia and internationally. They have more than 3000 students studying a range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses through the School of Humanities, Music and Social Sciences. The Faculty provides a culture of international excellence in research, teaching and learning.

Pic: University of Western Australia

The Hong Kong Polytechnic University places a strong emphasis on opening the minds of its students. Its highly regarded Faculty of Humanities specializes in offering a broad array of language and cultural programs including the Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Chinese and Bilingual Studies, and the Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in English Studies for the Professions. Through these programs and more, students will have the opportunity to immerse themselves in different languages and cultures while utilizing their critical thinking skills in intercultural and corporate contexts.

Advanced students may also pursue their PhD studies (via the Hong Kong PhD Fellowship Scheme) as well as a professional doctoral program, namely the Doctor of Applied Language Sciences. Furthermore, students are able to explore the Chinese culture, history and philosophy through other postgraduate programs in its Department of Chinese Culture, allowing them to enhance their critical thinking with a strong, cultural dimension.

The University of Auckland holds the distinction of being the highest ranked university in New Zealand – 82nd in the QS World University Rankings 2015/16. With a student population of 42,000 – including 6,000 international students from over 110 countries – it is also the largest. Offering more than 130 postgraduate programmes across eight faculties and two large-scale research institutes, it is easily New Zealand’s most comprehensive institution of higher learning. While students are free to choose from a vast array of course offerings, the university particularly excels at teaching accounting and finance, education, psychology, law, and English language and literature.

Pic: University of Auckland

The Johns Hopkins University (JHU) is undoubtedly one of the United States’ best universities, consistently appearing near the top of the major rankings – 16th in the QS World University Rankings 2015/16. As America’s first research university, it has a long and rich history in encouraging critical thought and pioneering innovation. It is no surprise that it has attracted the best and the brightest – 36 Hopkins researchers in the past and present have earned Nobel Prizes. The university’s medical and nursing schools are particularly well regarded, as its affiliated teaching hospital, which is one of the best known hospitals in the country.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) is one of the finest public universities in the United States – the U.S. News & World Report ranked it 5th among public schools in the country. Founded in 1789, the university is famous for being a ‘Public Ivy’ school, offering an Ivy League academic environment for a public schooling price. Spanning 14 schools and the College of Arts and Sciences, UNC offers outstanding teaching and research based on critical and creative thinking. As one of the country’s premier schools, it is well-respected for its studies in public health, business, and journalism.

The University of Warwick is among the most prestigious and highly selective universities in the world. Multiple rankings place it within the top 10 best universities in the U.K. – typically 6th or 7th place. Due to this, Warwick graduates are always in demand with employers, and they do well both in industry and academia. Located in Coventry, England, the university is renowned for its outstanding aptitude for research and innovation – the perfect breeding ground for critical thinking. The university is also famously diverse – about a third of its 23,000-strong student body come from abroad, representing more than 120 countries.

Pic: University of Warwick

Being the sixth oldest university in the English-speaking world, the University of Edinburgh has a long and illustrious history which spans centuries. Founded in 1582, it consistently ranks among the world’s and the United Kingdom’s top universities – 21st in the QS World University Rankings 2015/16. It is a member of the Russell Group of universities – a distinction it shares with its cousins Cambridge and Oxford. Edinburgh has received plaudits for the research done by its cutting-edge Computer Science and Informatics department. Also, world-class teaching in the arts and humanities have solidified the university’s a reputation as a center of critical thinking.

Students looking for top-notch education in Asia should look no further than the Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Young by global standards, the university consistently punches above its weight – 13th in the QS World University Rankings 2015/16 and 2nd best in Asia by the same ranking. Adhering to rigorous academic standards and drawing expert-level staff from 80 countries, NTU is famous for producing quality, world-class graduates in engineering, business, science, the arts and humanities, and the social sciences. NTU is particularly known for its business school (The Nanyang Business School) which has been consistently ranked as the best in Singapore by the Economist.

The University of Sydney is Australia’s first university and unsurprisingly still among its most prestigious. It is ranked 45th in the QS World University Rankings 2015/16, its academic prowess led by its outstanding performance in the arts and humanities. The university also produces top graduates in the fields of Life Sciences and Medicine as well as Social Sciences and Management. Sydney boasts a total of 16 faculties, running the gamut of fields from agriculture to engineering to law to music. The university is also the site of intense and never-ending research, putting critical thinking and innovation at the forefront of their efforts.

Pic: University of Melbourne

The University of Melbourne is one of Australia’s best universities, or simply the best by at least one measure – the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2015-2016 ranked it the top university the country. Located in cosmopolitan Melbourne, it is Australia’s second oldest university, having being founded in 1853. Over the years, it has grown into a bustling institution of learning and research, with over 47,000 students and 22 discipline-specific faculties. Its education, law, and business programs are long recognized as among the finest in the world. The university’s prestige has not gone unnoticed by employers – the university is ranked 18th in the world for graduate employability by the QS World University Rankings 2015/16.