The Productivity Commission’s Shifting the Dial report released last week prompted much media hyperbole about the performance of Australia’s universities.
There were claims that research was being emphasised over teaching and questionable assertions about unprepared, unemployed or underemployed graduates.
But a closer, more informed examination of the university sector and the profoundly changing jobs market reveals a very different reality.
Globalisation, disruption, the so-called fourth industrial revolution and demographic change are fundamentally changing the shape, nature and number of all jobs, including for graduates.
These changes are particularly brutal for entry-level jobs, which are disappearing fast.
University graduates fare far better. On the latest figures, 90 per cent of graduates have landed a full-time job within three years of finishing their studies.
By contrast, school-leavers face stronger competition for fewer entry-level jobs. Anglicare’s latest jobs availability snapshot found there were 124,000 jobseekers who didn’t have qualifications or experience for 25,979 advertised entry-level jobs.
And the higher your level of education, the lower your chances of being jobless. At last count, the jobless rate for graduates was 3.2 per cent — compared with 8.2 per cent for people without a post-school education.
Then there’s the issue of underemployment, where employed people would like to work more hours.
The inexorable shift in the economy towards services is partly responsible. The changing economy has meant more jobs are being generated in service industries that rely less on full-time employees and more on casual or part-time ones. This includes graduate employment — although not nearly to the same extent as for those with no post-school qualifications.
Contrary to some of the misleading commentary during the past week, the reasons for graduate underemployment are tied to the changing nature of the economy and jobs market rather than some imagined slide in academic standards or graduate preparedness for work.
In fact, acutely aware of the increasingly competitive job market for graduates, universities are fast adapting to this changed job market.
Acknowledging that employers require graduates who are job ready rather than ready to learn on the job, universities are incorporating work-integrated learning courses into undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Recognising that some students will work in start-ups or initiate their own, universities are also offering courses in entrepreneurialism and setting up hubs to support student start-up founders.
As Andrew Norton wrote perceptively in The Conversation: “Universities know that graduate employment is an issue. Enrolment growth has been greatest in health-related courses, which have the best employment outcomes. Employability programs, especially work-integrated learning, are expanding.”
Australia’s university system has proved to be one of the most flexible, adaptable and outward-looking in the world. This has helped to attract international students — and, in the process, our universities have built Australia’s biggest services export sector, which brings in $28.6 billion a year to our economy.
By definition, universities deliver teaching informed by research. This means our students benefit from the latest thinking in their chosen field of study and are taught by experts — and participate in research.
The nation wins through such research — it helps to solve problems, understand our world, saves lives, improves our health and leads to new products and industries. And research creates new jobs.
In a country with a traditionally narrow economic base, university research is a necessity, not a luxury. Despite generous tax benefits over decades, business investment in research is in decline. Without the sector’s investment, Australia would simply miss out. In these days of knowledge-based economies and industries, that could be a catastrophic risk.
And universities have not disregarded teaching to focus on research. They see both as crucial. The demands of the modern student and their benchmarking of lecturers ensure teaching performance.
Australia’s universities are deeply aware of the importance of innovative teaching and learning and are always adapting to student demand for more innovative, flexible courses and delivery.
This includes designing bespoke courses that allow students — particularly mature-aged people looking to upskill — to mix and match course units and the method by which they are delivered. Universities provide personal assistance to back up online course delivery.
Such flexibility is about moving with the times. It enables people to get the skills they require to contribute to a growing economy and an inclusive society in the face of rapid change.
And it is about broad access to higher education and all of its opportunities so our nation can prosper in an era of flux. Creating the best possible economy and society. Contrary to recent attempts to pit sector against sector, we shouldn’t be drawn into a confected battle between going to university or TAFE. Our labour market needs both — people with trades and people with degrees.
The university sector is acutely aware of the importance of arming students with the skills for the fast-changing jobs market in which many jobs, including white-collar ones, are likely to disappear or dramatically alter. Their role isn’t to prepare students for only one job. It’s to help prepare them for a career — and indeed a life — in an era of constant change in jobs, technology and circumstance.
The 2016 World Economic Forum report, The Future of Work, highlights the challenges in maintaining employment, income levels and a cohesive society in the face of accelerating disruption, globalisation and demographic change. “Without targeted action today to manage the near-term transition and build a workforce with future-proof skills, governments will have to cope with ever-growing unemployment and inequality and businesses with a shrinking consumer base,” the report notes.
Those stakes are high, but Australia’s universities are working hard to help the nation ride out the storm winds of change.
Belinda Robinson is chief executive of Universities Australia.
Published in The Australian.