Competition between universities is more intense than ever, resulting in a shift towards industry-relevant degrees.
But this attempt to link universities and the economy has not been universally successful so far. Employers still complain that graduates lack the necessary job skills. Research shows thousands of graduates are unable to obtain jobs of their choice.
Are universities then going about things in the wrong way? Is university all about being job-ready?
And in the drive to make graduates more employable and move up the global rankings, has students’ ability to learn and choose the courses they want to study taken a hit?
The corporatisation of our universities
Universities share a commitment to delivering courses and programs that meet the needs of industry and the economy more generally.
This has been achieved by linking tailored degrees to employment outcomes and, in the process, restructuring course offerings and content.
This has resulted in more performance-based assessment and work-ready criteria, such as graduate attributes, which seek to capture generic skills and abilities that can be applied in the workplace.
While policymakers, university administrators and employers champion links between universities and the economy, thousands of graduates are still struggling to find work.
This is especially true in fields like engineering, teaching, nursing, law, speech therapy, finance and commerce and accounting.
Despite such concerns, universities continue to reform and restructure programs and courses with industry in mind. Often the bigger picture is ignored.
One of the most significant shifts towards streamlined, industry-relevant degrees occurred in 2007 with the introduction of the so-called “Melbourne Model”.
Melbourne’s vice-chancellor, Glyn Davis, justified the consolidation of undergraduate degrees on the grounds that this would avoid duplication and the delivery of costly small courses.
But its primary focus was to make the university more “globally competitive” in an increasingly cut-throat international market.
When pursuit of profit gets in the way of learning
The university cut 96 programs and replaced them with six US-style, three-year undergraduate programs, which fed into various postgraduate programs.
This offered the university huge potential for income generation, by reducing teaching costs and increasing income by offering higher-priced postgraduate courses.
Predictably, the most severe cuts were to arts courses. This in turn resulted in the shedding of dozens of staff, followed by protests by academics, students and some members of the public.
Despite this opposition, the Melbourne Model was a sign of things to come.
Earlier this year the University of Sydney, under the stewardship of vice-chancellor Michael Spence, sought to emulate the Melbourne Model and elevate Sydney in the university world rankings.
Spence’s management team did so by embarking on a similar process of course rationalisation. In June, the ABC reported that the proposed changes would mean reducing the current 122 degrees to just 20.
Spence argued that:
if it’s a degree that is going to make our graduates more internationally competitive, more employable, it might actually be expenditure that’s worth it.
Academics, administrative staff and students protested, arguing that staff redundancies would exacerbate an earlier round of cuts and reduce the quality and range of degrees.
Similar cuts to programs and staff at La Trobe University were also intended to boost its place in the world rankings.
According to vice-chancellor John Dewar, “efficiency and quality-driven reforms” would allow for the introduction of hallmark or niche degrees relevant to the workplace of the 21st century.
Such changes, he added, would result in a “rejuvenated university”. He neglected to mention that over 300 jobs would be lost and numerous units cut.
Similar restructuring exercises have occurred at the universities of Tasmania, Swinburne, Monash, Victoria, Curtin, Newcastle, Charles Sturt and University of Western Australia. Such rationalisation exercises cut at the heart of universities, removing the very assets for which institutions are renowned.
The many examples of cuts to courses are accompanied by far-reaching changes to course content, with more emphasis placed on vocational outcomes.
Skills and knowledge “competencies”, “attributes” and other measures of performance have turned traditionally accepted pedagogical priorities like “critical thinking” into commodities marketed at prospective employers through e-portfolios and job-ready CVs.
Although the humanities, arts and social sciences continue to make up two-thirds of the undergraduate intake, these areas have been subjected to deep cuts or, as in the case of La Trobe University, fine-tuned to meet industry needs, or abandoned altogether (as occurred at QUT) in favour of “creative industries”.
Elsewhere, cuts have been made to peace and conflict studies, history, gender studies, philosophy and many languages. Industrially relevant “hard sciences” and courses like business, commerce and accountancy have proliferated.
University education isn’t just about being ‘job ready’
Is there any alternative to this streamlined and homogenised market-led agenda?
The slow university movement is characterised by scholarship and teaching that slows down the pace of knowledge production and celebrates collective and creative endeavours.
Free universities and various independent colleges highlight the possibility of a more social rather than economic approach to higher education.
In practice this requires:
- reassessment of links between universities, government and business;
- the provision of more time and space for deeper learning;
- greater emphasis on critical thinking and community action;
- an education more relevant to everyday life.
Decoupling education from markets will be a vital step in ensuring a vibrant democratic future.
Kristen Lyons and Richard Hil will take part in panel debates on November 23 to discuss the issues raised in this article as part of the Challenging the Privatised University conference.