A 21st-century higher education: training for jobs of the future

What should higher education look like given we don’t know what the jobs of the future will be? from www.shutterstock.com.au

Australia’s new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has announced what he calls a “21st-century government”. This article is part of The Conversation’s series focusing on what such a government should look like.


Only the brave or foolhardy would claim knowledge about the shape of jobs for the next decade, let alone the rest of the 21st century. We know that the end of local car manufacturing alone will involve the loss of up to 200,000 jobs directly or indirectly, and there will be no large-scale manufacturing to replace them.

We also cannot assume that employment in health and human services will continue to expand in their place. Globally, millions of dollars are being invested in robotic monitors, nurses and companions for the elderly. The driverless car is almost with us, meaning that even Uber’s moment in the sun may be brief.

So if we’re not sure what the jobs of the future will look like, what kind of tertiary education can prepare students for the world of work? Various forces will be at play including economic (such as continued globalisation and intensification of competition), social (such as the ageing of Australia’s population), and technological (automation, digitalisation). There are also powerful environmental constraints.

What kind of education can prepare us for the future?

If we accept that tertiary education (from diplomas to doctorates) will be the key to career opportunities, ensuring everyone has equal access will be a priority. Higher levels of education must also be available in more flexible and innovative forms to enable lifelong learning. This will be essential both for deepening skills and re-skilling as old occupations disappear and new ones evolve.

Future education should not just prepare students for jobs that might be on offer, but stimulate them to see the possibilities for innovation and even – for some – the creation of their own jobs.

There will be plenty of teachers and chefs, hairdressers and scientists, but even familiar occupations will require new capabilities. Whether working in Shepparton or Shanghai, graduates will need cultural competencies to be effective practitioners of their trade in a multicultural world. Most will also need to have skills in analysing and interpreting a world flooded with data, and dominated by digital forms of communication.

There are key generic skills that need to be developed. Communication skills – including writing skills – are essential to support both effective teamwork and creative linkages across disciplines and specialisations. Higher levels of numeracy are also needed across many more occupations.

Generic skills need to be developed in specific disciplinary and professional contexts. The uncertainty of the future should not be used to reduce the importance of disciplinary depth in either vocational or higher tertiary education. We need graduates who have disciplinary depth as well as a broad range of generic capabilities. A focus on narrow occupational competencies won’t serve students well. Critical thinking is essential.

Learning of the future will be about solving problems

Arizona State University is attracting attention worldwide for its focus on solving big social, economic and environmental problems. To do this the university has to break down disciplinary silos, and stop focusing on questions that academics know how to answer. There is no reason, they argue, to assume that what we can know is what we most need to know.

Closer to home, the University of Technology Sydney has introduced a Bachelor in Creative Intelligence and Innovation (BCII) that can be taken as part of a double degree with everything from midwifery to accounting. The BCII allows students to develop a capacity for approaching messy, complex problems and issues of contemporary society with unique capabilities.

Students don’t learn by sitting passively in lectures, but by engaging in activities that help them understand which technologies, methods and creative practices can provoke innovation. They have to be able to critique proposals by developing skills in team collaboration, visualisation, modelling, and communication of complex ideas.

The challenges for tertiary education are significant. To meet them universities will need to give teaching and curriculum design a greater priority. This will require greater incentives for collaboration between teachers, and across disciplinary boundaries. Students will need opportunities to experience work environments as part of their learning.

Boundaries between educational institutions and the outside world need to be far more porous, not to “train” students for existing jobs, but so they can understand the new forces at work. They will have to adapt to these forces, but they can also be helped to respond with creativity and intelligence.