Likewise for teachers, doctors, and engineers. More often than not, equipped with their initial degree, they spent their entire working lives in the profession for which they had studied.
A job-for-life is now less of a common experience. And yet the debate we continue to have around what university educational success looks like seems stuck in the era of Mad Men – absent the lunch-time martinis and chattering typewriters in the secretarial pool.
As night follows day, explosive claims of universities letting down students inevitably follow the release of student retention and graduate employment data regardless of the size of the shift compared with previous years.
The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics snapshot on qualifications and work have sparked a fresh round of argument. The new figures revealed that two in three graduates with a bachelor’s degree are currently working in the field of their highest qualification.
Does the fact that one in three are now working in a field different to the one they studied in represent a policy failure or is it simply a reflection of the new reality of work?
We now have lawyers working as journalists or actors, engineers working as merchant bankers, economists as arts administrators and astronomers as financial traders.
Forty per cent of working Australians in 2013 had changed their occupation in the past 12 months. This rate of churn is set to rise in response to a pace of industrial and labour market change not seen since the industrial revolution.
A staggering 40 per cent of Australian jobs that exist today are set to disappear within the next two decades, mostly as a result of technological disruption. While it is difficult to predict – beyond generalisations – the specific jobs that will emerge, graduates with high level competencies – both specialised skills and generic abilities in critical thinking, analysis, numeracy, communication, problem solving and digital literacy – will be the most employable.
While you wouldn’t want an engineer performing your brain surgery or a botanist drawing up your legal agreement, there are many areas where graduate skills are readily re-deployable.
The law student who once may have pursued a lifetime career with a single law firm might now opt to become the founder of a start-up company, a chief executive, a public servant, a journalist or an international aid worker.
This same ABS data also suggests that about 6.5 per cent of working-age Australians have an incomplete bachelor’s degree and that of those who commenced an undergraduate degree, about 19 per cent do not complete.
These figures have been met with accusations of policy failure. Setting aside the hyperbole, the commentary does raise a legitimate policy question about what is an acceptable completion rate.
While it is far from ideal for public and private funds to be invested in study not completed, does any number less than 100 per cent suggest a fundamental failure of public policy? The reality has always been and will continue to be that students get sick, have trouble juggling life’s competing demands, decide a course or career is not for them or find the course is not what they expected.
Little would be achieved by compelling students down a study path where an option to turn back is not available.
What do we as a community accept is a fair balance between minimising the cost to the taxpayer, and the flexibility that enables people to pursue the jobs to which they are best suited?
Ensuring prospective students have access to the information they need to make wise choices is part of the answer. Another part lies in making sure that, once enrolled, students are supported to succeed.
These are difficult questions made even more challenging in a tough budget environment. Both Education Minister Simon Birmingham and Opposition spokesman on higher education Kim Carr have expressed a strong commitment to addressing the thorny issue of retention.
Universities stand ready to work as constructive partners with whomever forms government on policy that reflects contemporary workplace demands.
Opinion piece by Universities Australia Chair Barney Glover and Chief Executive Belinda Robinson, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 1 July 2016