We have more people going to university in Australia than ever before. In 1971 only 2% of the population over 15 years old held a Bachelor’s degree, in 2013 it was 25%. Last year a whopping 1,149,300 people were enrolled in a Bachelor’s degree or above.
However, graduate employment rates are falling. This leads many to ask whether too many people are going to university. Should everyone go to university? Or just the correct number to be able to fill highly skilled jobs in Australia?
More education, the more benefits for all
Philosophically, I am all in favour of providing a university experience to as many students as possible. The positive external effects of a highly educated population include reduced crime rates and better health outcomes with associated lower public costs. Equally, it leads to stronger societies and communities, stronger democracies and, although slowly, it helps in reducing socio-economic inequalities.
And we should not forget the formative impact that “going to college” has on individuals, ranging from personal growth to greater job satisfaction once graduated.
While universal higher education is a positive goal in many aspects, not everyone will have the ability necessary to complete a degree. A recent report to the US Senate provided a painful reminder that universal tertiary education is not only about enrolling students, but equally about making sure they graduate and that subsequently they are in a position to repay their loans. Repayment, as the data shows, goes hand in hand with completion and finding a job.
Ensuring their students can complete the degrees they are enrolled in is universities’ first responsibility.
While some may look at graduate employment rates and contend we have an oversupply of graduates, I fundamentally disagree. Not only is the middle- and long-term outlook for university graduates still pretty good, in a knowledge-based economy there is no limit on the level of educational attainment. The higher and the better educated a country, the more competitive it becomes.
This point is illustrated by the recent report of the World Economic Forum. The report is based on a classic economic model in which a sound tertiary education system is a prerequisite for a skilled, well-educated workforce and a vibrant innovation system, which are the two pillars of all advanced economies.
Graduates need to be broadly educated
A well-educated workforce doesn’t mean narrowly trained graduates in highly specialised and professional positions. Sure, we do need those – as anyone undergoing surgery or spending some time in a dentist chair will attest. But for an innovative society that is strongly service-based we need well-educated graduates who are the motor for process and product innovation.
This, in turn, means “T-shaped” graduates who possess in-depth disciplinary knowledge (the vertical bar of the T) but who also combine this with skills and abilities not specific to just one area (the horizontal top bar of the T).
These well-educated people can work in teams and have a capacity for deep listening. They can communicate and are instilled with an entrepreneurial spirit that enables them to create new jobs rather than venturing out to a pre-populated labour market.
This then is the second responsibility that is bestowed on universities. It is not only about completion but completing with the right set of skills and abilities.
This is not to say that nothing is happening. Far from it.
To take some random examples, over the last four years the University of Technology, Sydney almost doubled its enrolments in first-year chemistry from 650 to over 1,000, accompanied by significantly improved pass rates and reduced attrition. Innovation and design labs exploring design thinking are popping up across the country.
But, as a sector, many of our approaches to teaching and learning are still traditional and many are antiquated.
This needs to change if we truly see university education as part of the engine room of a competitive, innovative society in the most dynamic socio-economic region of the world. This is not only about resourcing, it also is about “having skin in the game” as the US Senate report so aptly frames it.
The Conversation is running a series on “What are universities for?” looking at the place of universities in Australia, why they exist, who they serve, and how this is changing over time. Read other articles in the series here.