Disclosure: My attendance at EduTECH 2017 was due to a media pass provided by the conference organisers.
The morning tea break followed the plenary session and then it was off to the Higher Ed Leaders conference to hear Jack Hylands talking about preparing students for the economies of the future. It was a small group in this congress, however, Jack began by giving the small group the good news about statistics on the Australian Higher Education sector.
I find these stats rather interesting as they are in contrast to the often negative message we receive about Australian education in the media as a whole. Jack continued on by telling us that there is so much focus on the payment side of higher education that it distracts from other areas and that the deregulation of universities has resulted in increasing enrolment numbers year on year across a significant number of degree courses. This may sound like it is a good thing, however, the result of ongoing enrolment increases has been a lack of focus on the need to continue innovating and developing the courses and the devlivery of courses.
This is an interesting point. I have written before about my own initial teacher education and much of it (and I suspect the vast majority of degrees in most universities around the country) are delivered through a combination of lectures and workshops, with the workshops being a mixture of lecture-drive theory and actual hands-on workshop (the ration depending on the actual course/topic/tutor). There are so many degrees that do not need a lecture, wherein the main concept that needs to be learned in that lecture can be distilled into a few sentences without all of the fluff that is added in to fill out the hour long timeslot. This lack of focus on continuously innovating and improving courses needs to change.
Jack then commented that graduate unemployment is at its highest preak since the recession in the early 1990s. I personally believe this is a major problem and is the result of the removal of placement caps within university courses. As long as Commonwealth funding continues to come through for each student who enrols, then why would there be a need to cap place numbers in courses? This focus on money has resulted in a glut of teachers (except within particular subject areas and in particular geographical locations), pharmacists (my wife's professional background and in a similar situation as teaching with regard to the number of underemployed and unemployed professionals), and lawyers to name just a few. Universities continue to produce high numbers of graduates in industries and professions whom they will struggle to find full-time work.
I went looking for data to support the above and was unable to find anything (in a quick search) to support either my belief or Jack's statistics. What I did find was the Graduate Careers Australia GradStats report from December 2015 which remarked that "...figures do indicate that the longer-term prospects for those with higher education qualifications remain very positive" (p.5). This is in contrast to this article on the ABC News website which cited research by the National Institute of Labour Studies indicating that the proportion of new graduates in full time employment dropped from 56.4% to 41.7% between 2008 to 2014. Jack remarked that market-based mechanics has not worked for higher education and I would add to that that is has not worked for primary or secondary education either.
When the goal of so many stakeholders in society is go to uni and that is the measure of success, with so many employment positions requiring a degree (irrespective of the ability to actually do the job) there are two flow-on effects. Firstly, TAFE and the Trades are devalued, with massive funding cuts to TAFE over the last decade and falling numbers of trades and apprenticeships in the same time period, do not see an argument otherwise. Secondly, to stand out, you need to have a better degree. A Bachelor's degree used to indicate that you were a cut above, that you were driven, focused, able to articulate yourself well in both written and spoken forms. Now, it seems that everyone has a Bachelor degree and to stand out you need to have a Masters, if not a PhD.
The domesetic funding model that drives this increasing funding model is not sustainable over the long term in its current incarnation, yet the Australian government wants to continue telling our prospective international students that we have the best higher education system in the world. Jack indicated that this is compounded by the fact that there are a number of multi-nationals who have removed the need to hold a particular degree to attai entry-level employmentas the ability to demonstrate competency to do the core task is more important than waving a piece of paper around. I wrote somethign similar in one of my articles about my own initiall teacher education, that my results in the high school finishing exam were not indicative of the kind of tertiary student I would be just as my university results were not indicateive of the kind of teacher I would be. That said, there needs to be a balance.
The other challenge for higher education is that they are no longer necessarily the gatekeepers of knowledge, as has been their role in centuries past. With the proliferation of the inernet and knowledge being freely available as a result, the role of higher education as gatekeepers has passed. To highlight this point, Jack then quoted some statistics from The New Work Mindset published by the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) around the changes in our working future.
Jack introduced us to Reggie, citing that Reggie had particular needs around the structure of his learning compared to a regular full-time student. The standardised course which applies to everybody is fine; as long as it can also be personalised on a needs basis to meet the needs of individuals. As an example of this, Jack mentioned the ME310 Design Innovation course at Stanford University.
"Students in ME310 take on real world design challenges brought forth by corporate partners. Unlike many other academic engineering projects, which require students to optimize one variable, students must design a complete system while being mindful of not only the primary function but also the usability, desirability, and societal implications. Throughout one academic year, student teams prototype and test many of their design concepts and in the end create a full proof-of-concept system that demonstrates their ideas. "
This changes the conceptualisation of a university when the focus of the university is not on the traditional lecture and tutorial model of delivery. To further highlight what can be one to reimagine that traditional model, Jack spoke next about MissionU. This university model promotes free tuition for the life of your studies, with 15% garnishing of your salary for a three year period once you are earning over fifty thousand dollars (read more here), which sounds rather similar to our funding model here in Australia. The degrees themselves are focused on high-growth industries and include industry partnerships to foster networking and, presumably, graduate employment.
There is a future, and a potentially bright future for higher education. The challenge is going to be evolving to suit the new needs of emerging skills, economies, and our societal needs.
Thank you for reading this article. If you have missed any in this EduTECH2017 series, you can find the full list here.