Rethinking university

By Lawrence Watt

Universities face pressure from disruptive technologies. Some are questioning the structure of universities and how well the current model prepares graduates for work
The landscape in which universities operate is shifting; how they adapt to this is key to their survival.
The landscape in which universities operate is shifting; how they adapt to this is key to their survival.

This debate begins with a blogpost by Professor Kourosh Kayvani, a Sydney-based structural engineer and director at management consultancy firm Aurecon. His experience includes lead structural engineer for London's Wembley Stadium arch and roof. An honorary professor at Sydney University, he is currently advising on large projects.

Kavani believes universities are failing to provide graduates with the skills needed for their first jobs.

"In a study conducted in the US last year, only 23 per cent of employers said recent graduates are well-prepared for applying their knowledge and skills at work," he says.

"The landscape in which universities operate is shifting. Online learning and open online courses have meant learning content is now easily accessible to all. In many instances access to information is free.

"This is forcing universities to rethink their place in the educational ecosystem and the value they provide to their clients.

"If universities are to remain relevant in a world of constant disruption, reimagining who their client is would be a powerful action. If they did this they would interact with industry in totally different ways."

But not everyone agrees. Dr Bill Rosenberg, economist and director of policy at the Combined Trades Unions, says universities are also research institutes and their teaching should deliberately be general.

Despite rapid change, graduates will always need "a basic grounding in a discipline that should be as broad as possible, so they can understand the basis of a particular occupation and industry -- say, the principals underlying engineering, psychology, computer science or whatever."

A university education should prepare graduates for change. "Graduates should be able understand what is needed when things change and so be able to learn new things easily."

Now you can Google almost anything, the 'thinking' and 'creative' aspects of a degree seem even more important.

"Information is now valueless, two clicks and you've got it. But judgment costs a premium," says Kim Campbell, CEO of the Employers and Manufacturers Association.

Campbell is amazed at the high level of graduates he takes on, many with two, some with three degrees. Some can take years to find their niche. Others fall below standard.

And while many graduates have large loans to pay off, universities are not producing sufficient graduates in areas of high demand (like science and engineering) while there is a surplus of law graduates. He suggests the system requires better planning, perhaps reducing some intakes.

But there is also more to university than lectures, assignments and exams. Campbell recalls his time vigorously debating political issues in the university 'quadrangle' (where people had lunch or coffee). While not part of your degree, the quad talk helped develop a lifelong skill.

"The people who succeed in the end are good communicators," he says.

Right course key

Many jobs, even those you needed a degree to get, are disappearing. A recent study by Deolitte UK predicts 35 per cent of UK jobs are at risk of automation within 20 years. Experts like English futurist Richard Watson, author of Digital versus Human, say GPs, accountants and journalists are at risk.

Fewer jobs will be created than are lost and the world is now in 'Future Shock', defined as "too much change in too short a period of time."

Rosenberg says the kind of work that professionals do will change - accountants will do less number-crunching and focus on offering advice.

It's true that "You have to re-invent yourself every 10 years," says Campbell. But change is not new, it's today's pace that is much faster.

Formal education has got longer to suit the increasingly complex world. In his grandad's day, people finished secondary school; in his father's time they finished college (in the US, where his father studied); today's minimal requirement is tertiary education to age 21 or 22.

Campbell believes universities are doing a good job of offering courses for people who need to top up their skills, but he warns people to think carefully about why they are doing the course - is it to get a better job, or to do something they value?

Rosenberg suggests initial degrees will probably get even longer but employers will have to offer more skills-based courses themselves.

"It's simply not feasible for universities to know about all the things that firms need."

Polytechnics may also be part of the answer. "It's a mistake to think that polytechnics are a lower form of life than universities."

If you end up studying for a longer part of your life, as a result of re-skilling, "It doesn't mean that your first degree needs to be shorter, there is an argument that it should be longer. There is so much to learn," Rosenberg says.

Net learning not the answer

"If you believe in digital disruption, then the reality may well be we don't know what the businesses of the future will look like," says Professor Greg Whittred, dean of the University of Auckland school of business economics.

So designing a suitable course may not be easy - but he reckons it's "closer to the truth [that] we can make an informed guess about the kind of topics you need to cover, like social media, disruptive business models, change management, creative thinking and entrepreneurship."

The school also focuses on "soft skills" like negotiation, managing people and perseverance.

"Universities are keenly aware of the challenges in front of them. The current focus around graduates' employability demonstrates universities are aware who the customer really is," he says, but "when universities are challenged, it is in the ability to adapt to this new environment.

Change is difficult to effect; the characteristics that have allowed universities to endure for centuries are not necessarily those that make them nimble and adaptable."

He feels that free net-only courses from overseas are over-rated.

"The campus-based experience is unlikely to disappear."

- NZ Herald

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