The current hype about the future of work often includes universities in its sights, questioning their capacity to adapt student learning to the predicted needs of coming decades. What I expect to see instead is universities maintaining their dominance of the initial degree programs for generalist degrees and professions, and of the research degree. Together with many other providers, universities will also provide a vast range of follow on studies, giving people the opportunity to gain specific new skills or knowledge areas.
Research will remain a fundamental element of the university. The interesting question is how much research will continue to drive change in our lives, underpinning the greater wealth and wellbeing enjoyed across most parts of the globe during the 20th Century. The past two decades have seen much technical change but, driven by broader concerns about environmental health and national security, less acceptance that we are better off.
Analyses of the future workforce tend to concur that by 2025 or 2030 many current jobs will not exist or will be very different in nature. Some estimate that up to half of all jobs will be substantially affected. These predictions will have some aspects right, but equally, based on past experience with similar assessments, will not have factored in many of the changes to come and will overstate the significance of others.
In considering the implications of jobs being very different in twenty years, it is valuable to reflect on expectations people had in 1990 about the future workforce, before email or the internet was in common use. In effect, almost every job in Australia has altered in significant ways over the past two to three decades and some notable roles from the past have been lost. This does not mean we will sail easily into the 2040s, but it does show that continued changes can be integrated.
The predictions about great change in the nature of work burst open the debate about the importance of immediate gaining of competencies versus the acquisition of underlying skill and knowledge sets. The former will get you work now, the latter ensure you get it in the future. The assumptions of great change in work buttress the traditional argument that university education is for the longer term and should not be too driven by the immediate. This strengthens my prediction that the base substantive degree will remain primarily a university role.
Over many centuries universities have retained basic characteristics that should carry them through several more decades at least. They are the place to gain the starting qualification for a career that involves both the learning of particular skills and the encouragement to think broadly about a subject area. Through most of their history they have been important centres for developing new knowledge. Those attributes stand regardless of modes of learning delivery and knowledge exploration.
So what is changing?
The economic and social reality is that nearly everyone now needs a post school qualification. University education is part of the general education system. This sounds obvious, yet it is a common refrain still that somehow universities sit apart. It presumes most people can gain from post-secondary education and training. The evidence for this is quite strong, yet some still picture humans as having a set amount of educational capacity which begins being filled in primary school and, for some at least, ends shortly thereafter. Educating all to their need should not hold back learning of those most naturally suited to academic learning. Schools already work to this notion. They are expected to take the whole cohort of five-year-olds and produce learning in all of them over the following 13-year period. We measure success by how well the group performs; how well the least successful do and how high the most successful shoot.
Tertiary education has the same challenge
This has created a mini industry of proposals to structure post school education more effectively. By 2040 these questions should be well and truly resolved, placing universities securely among a range of education opportunities. There is an important debate about how to maintain work knowledge and skills after initial qualifications. Merely adding more qualifications is perhaps not the best solution, although historically that is what happens whenever a significant set of people undertake a similar, but not fully defined type of education.
I hope too we will have a clear role for non-university providers where they do not feel the need to pretend to be a university, but can instead focus at what they may be good at – if the market supports them.
We ought to have accepted that the system will support each person find their way to their desired education outcomes and have moved beyond attempting to force people into certain areas, which has never worked. Those who think individual choice is not a good basis should look back at previous predictions of workforce needs.
Conor King is the Executive Director of the Innovative Research Universities (IRU), a coalition of seven comprehensive Australian universities committed to inclusive excellence in teaching, learning and research.
Conor is a leading expert in policy and strategy across the education and training sector, writing extensively on higher education and tertiary education issues.
Prior to joining the IRU, Conor was Principal Consultant with Phillips KPA, a specialist education consultancy group, and Institutional Strategist for Victoria University. Conor was Director, Policy and Analysis, with the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee, from 1998 to 2005 and a senior executive with the then Commonwealth Department of Human Services and Health from 1995 to 1998.