What role should universities play in today’s society?



Universities historically exist as institutions for the creation and dispersion of knowledge. But today, many young people enter university solely to prepare for careers.

In an era of demand-driven funding – where universities have the option to recruit as many students as they wish – is it beneficial for most young people to hold a university degree? Or is the benefit of a university education overstated, setting some young people up to fail?

Arguably, the higher the skill level of our workforce, the higher our country’s productivity.

But the nature of Australia’s workforce is changing.

Young people need to be prepared for a variety of roles in a future that will be transformed by automation and digitisation.

The CSIRO paints a picture that if institutions and modes of employment do not change, Australia will fail to compete with the world.

Where are the jobs of the future?

It is difficult to make accurate predictions about jobs of the future.

As the growth and subsequent decline in mining industry jobs show, industries can grow and contract faster than universities can supply graduates.

But we can look at current trends and predict the type of skills young people will need.

Occupations that rely on people skills have increased faster than average – for example, employment in health care and social assistance increased by over 20% in five years.

And as some occupations decline in job opportunities, others are transformed.

Online share trading platforms have driven a 20% decrease over five years in employment of financial dealers, as people can track share prices directly.

Jobs requiring high-level expertise – financial investment advisers and portfolio managers – have increased by nearly 40% in the same timeframe.

These roles draw on similar skillsets but at a higher level and across a range of functions, pointing to the need for young people to engage in cross-disciplinary deep learning.

These types of shifts in employment patterns and job descriptions are evident across industries, signalling that young people today will need to be more flexible and more entrepreneurial than in the past.

They need broad capabilities, while at the same time some roles are being transformed to require even deeper knowledge.

What is the role of higher education?

Higher education once represented a secure pathway to high-skill, high-wage jobs. But this pathway does not eventuate for over one in five young people who enter university but fail to complete their degrees.

We need to ensure young people are well informed about their course selection and are supported to complete their degrees.

Labour market outcomes for tertiary educated young people are far better than those without qualifications or who leave school early, but many still often struggle to gain a secure foothold in the labour market.

Data from the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth reveal that graduate employment rates increase steadily upon bachelor course completion, rising to more than 90% by around 24 years of age. However, around one-quarter of those employed can only find part-time work.

What needs to be done?

Universities are not now, nor have ever been, solely focused on preparing young people for the workforce.

A broad general education, such as an arts or commerce degree, provides young people with a range of capabilities that may be as, or more, relevant to the changing economy than some occupationally specific degrees.

Young people need career advice and workplace experience to develop and apply their skills in an occupational context.

Entrepreneurial skills will be needed if young people are to create their own jobs in the future.

We need to ensure we have the right models of education to suit a range of interests and career aspirations.

Universities often have an edge on enabling students to develop deep knowledge, while developing capabilities in a workplace context that is often better suited to vocational education and training providers.

Even so, enrolments of domestic undergraduates have escalated while government funded enrolments in vocational education and training have declined by nearly 9% between 2014 and 2015.

Some existing university courses, like medicine and dentistry, are applied in their very nature, while other courses including public policy and planning are adopting internships to bridge the gap.

These pathways are particularly important for generalist degree graduates, as the link between knowledge gained and workplace capabilities is more tenuous, and graduate outcomes tend to be lower.

For courses more tightly linked to vocational outcomes, the degree apprenticeship path, as adopted in the UK, could provide an additional pathway to ensure skills learned in university can be applied to the workplace.

Both universities and vocational education providers have a shared role in securing the future labour force by fostering knowledge, analytic thinking, broad capabilities and technical skills in our young people.

A key priority should be ensuring young people are equipped and supported to make the choices that work for them and to choose a pathway that holds value in a rapidly changing economy.

Author Bio: Megan O’Connell is Policy Program Director, Mitchell Institute at Victoria University