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Global science superstar Brian Cox was in Australia last month and, asked about the threat of jobs being destroyed by the rise of automation, he was refreshingly optimistic.

The innovation system is actually replacing the jobs it destroys with new jobs, Cox says. But — and here’s the kicker — many of those new jobs will need a higher level of education.

“So the challenge for government is to make sure it has a research, innovation and education system that creates new jobs and educates the workforce faster than the old jobs (disappear),” he says.

Cox’s reflection is a potent reproach to those who suggest we are over-educating our people: we are missing the big picture.

Having a larger group of Australians with a university-level education isn’t some crazy over-credentialing spree. It’s a clear-eyed investment in the skills required for jobs in the years ahead.

Some have criticised the fact we have people with degrees doing jobs that once didn’t require degrees. But is it truly the same job if they bring greater skills to it? We all know that a highly skilled candidate can transform the value a company gets from that job, sometimes dramatically.

Ask most employers and they’ll say they want the highest possible skills in their teams.

Businesses recruit graduates to their workforce for hard-headed reasons and the returns add up.

If they didn’t, why not hire more people with no post-school education and save on wages? Because employers see value in the skills people acquire through university study.

The hard evidence from large-scale surveys of supervisors is that employers value the ability of graduates to apply what they’ve learned at university in a workplace. And that’s often not only about the specific subject matter from their field of study.

In many cases employers value the thinking, creative and interpersonal skills graduates learn during their degrees: it’s the thinking capacity they are hiring, not so much the piece of parchment.

This will be even more important as we contemplate a future in which robots and supercomputers work alongside us in a vast array of jobs.

That includes medicine and the law.

Already doctors are working with IBM’s Watson supercomputer in some parts of the world.

Last month a study by economic consultants AlphaBeta forecast that with the rise of artificial intelligence and automation, Australia may need to help more than three million Australian workers to retrain.

It also noted we could reap a $2.2 trillion opportunity by 2030 from those same tech trends.

“Automation isn’t going to affect some workers but … every worker,” the firm’s Andrew Charlton says. In that future, higher levels of education and ongoing retraining opportunities will be vital.

Economic forecasting says we’ll need high-quality vocational and university education to meet Australia’s future labour market needs.

We also need to be scrupulous to ensure that we don’t leave parts of our community behind amid such major shifts.

People with no post-school education must be able to secure opportunities in this future.

These trends and challenges are the same in advanced economies right around the world. And they point to the need for sustained investment in higher education.

Those who bemoan the expansion of university access to more Australians than ever during the past decade miss another crucial point: that expansion has overseen the biggest improvement in enrolments by Australians from diverse backgrounds than at any other time in our history.

Since university places were uncapped, tens of thousands more students from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, regional and rural areas, people from the poorest quarter of Australian households and people with disabilities have been able to pursue the transformative opportunity of a university education.

The latest university enrolment data, published in the past fortnight, continues that trend.

Last year, indigenous enrolments were up 10 per cent, those of low-socioeconomic status students were up 3.8 per cent, and remote and rural student enrolments were up 2.1 per cent.

This is an important story that is, at its heart, about making the most of all our talent and offering all Australians a fair go.

Governments need to sustain investments in education and research so our people and industries aren’t left behind. This is crucial to maintain Australian living standards and jobs.

And those investments will be a necessity — not a luxury — in the coming hi-tech, high-skills era.

As Cox put it so clearly: “Old jobs will be destroyed, they always have been, but it’s government’s responsibility to make sure the ecosystem works to create more new jobs, and not destroy it.”

Catriona Jackson is deputy chief executive of Universities Australia.

This article was published in The Australian on 6 December 2017.

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