Lessons unis teach go beyond job-ready skills

Strategy

Detractors are lining up to criticise our universities. The Australian Industry Group last week warned that the tertiary sector was not keeping up with the needs of business and was producing graduates who were almost unemployable because they lacked skills.

The comments were based on the 2017 Employer Satisfaction Survey, which found more than a quarter of graduates thought their degree was not at all or not that important for their current employment. Their work supervisors had a different view: employer satisfaction with graduate skills ranged from 85 per cent to 93 per cent. Yet the media focused on how graduates perceived the “value” of their degree, even though many had less than a year of work experience and may not yet understand how their qualification helps them.

It was another example of universities being stereotyped as degree factories that pump out students with low skills and as institutions that lack real-world experience, produce irrelevant research and waste taxpayer funds.

I am over university bashing. Too much of it is biased, anecdotal and lacks context given the profound challenges of Industrial Revolution 4.0 — the era of artificial intelligence that will redefine the skills landscape.

That is not to say there are no issues.

We still have too many universities, duplicating resources; there is insufficient industry/university collaboration in many sectors; and there is room for more start-up entrepreneurship on campus.

But to imply our tertiary sector is underperforming and out-of-touch is wrong. We need sensible debate, planning and action to ensure graduates have the right skills to prosper in this revolution. Here are five ideas to consider on teaching:

Broaden skills definition

Too many critics want universities to produce graduates with a “laundry list” of vocational skills. That is not what universities do; the best ones help students think differently, challenge ideas, create, adapt and be resilient. They provide skills that last a lifetime.

My work in artificial intelligence reinforces the importance of transportable skills. As the shelf-life of technical skills shrinks, the need for universities to help students adapt has never been more important.

Encourage lifelong learning

Too many students see graduation as the end of their studies when it is often just the start. Moreover, many universities treat graduates as fundraising opportunities rather than lifelong learners who return for ongoing education. Combining work and study will see less education upfront and more along the way as people need new capabilities.

Elevate teachers

University incentives are still too biased towards research over teaching. Outstanding academic careers are built on journal publications and funding grants, not stimulating young minds through exceptional teaching.

Our teachers should be inspiring curiosity, imagination, critical thinking and teamwork in all students, along with a lot of grit and persistence.

Collaborate with industry

Unlike the US, Australia does not have a strong culture of senior executives teaching at university during or after their corporate career — pracademics who straddle industry and academia — or corporate internships built into course structures. If we want skilled graduates, we must expose them to industry earlier. We need industry associations, companies and executives giving back to the tertiary sector.

Integrate the arts

Ai Group emphasised the need for skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. However, these skills on their own are not enough. Google, an archetype of the STEM-only approach, found that seven of the top eight characteristics of its successful staff were soft skills. STEM expertise came last. The ability to listen, communicate, be empathetic, support others, think critically, solve problems and make connections were most important. We must expand the concept of STEM to STEAM, incorporating the arts and humanities.

Focusing on STEM subjects to the exclusion of arts and humanities misses the essence of what makes us human, and what will separate us from the machines in the future.

• John Barrington is founder of Barrington Consulting Group and chairs GotSkill Platforms, Perth Festival and Anglicare WA

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