Does everyone need to go to University?
No, but there should be a place for everyone who needs or wants to go. This being the case; what should determine the need and what should be there? That depends on how you see the value and purpose of a University education.
Like the US and the UK, New Zealand University enrolments had been growing steadily since the second-world war, but the early 1990’s marked a boom off the back of reform and economic change sparking massive growth. New Zealand hit peak University enrolment around 2010/11 and completions peaked in 2012/13. Since then, numbers have steadily declined which has been problematic for the funding of Universities (I’ll talk about this elsewhere). Alongside this, the world of work has changed, University education has changed and what it costs has changed somewhat.
I entered Uni 30 years ago, at that time in the UK people would still go to “retirement parties” celebrating people leaving jobs or employers after a lifetime of work. Now, according to widely cited numbers, someone might expect to have 15 jobs or more across a career span. When I attended Uni the largest class I attended had 60 people in it. A few years ago, I ran a class of 200 or more and that is by no means the biggest I have come across. I finished my undergraduate degree with less than NZ$2000 of debt, my graduating class will be lucky to come out with less than NZ$30000 each. So, if work and Uni have changed, surely, we should look closely at what must go into a degree, who it is for, as well as what benefits it ought to provide.
In the early post war period, it was assumed that scholarly skills were of benefit to both society and employers, so it made sense to educate students primarily through scholarship. Think about a mixture of subject specific reading, writing and research. This assumption seemed sufficient to drive a growth in numbers and access. When I went to Uni I was often asked what I was “reading”, I don’t recall being asked about what career I was going to pursue. If nothing else, the growth in specialist subjects, majors and especially work placements while studying, should convince anyone that things have changed profoundly. The mantra of workplace or vocational relevance has come to dominate what undergraduates do in the course of their studies. That this is a good thing may seem obvious, but it can and should be challenged.
I’ve always been sceptical of workplace readiness in its purest form. I don’t think the concept is viable. In the first place, those who plan the teaching curriculum have to make some pretty big guesses about what the workplace will look like when students graduate. To get a sense of the risk, look at how mobile phones killed Adobe Flash in five years or how Facebook has changed journalism. More damning perhaps are the answers given by employers when asked what they want. The responses divide between literacy/numeracy and somewhat nebulous “soft skills”. On the basis of direct observation, I’ve taken “soft skills” to mean either whatever the boss doesn’t want to do or socio-behavioural traits consistent with an ageing, privileged male discourse. To gain some sense of this I once asked an employer for more details on soft skills. Amongst other things like manners and the ability to greet people warmly, was – answer the phones properly. I’ll let that sink in for a moment, I’m expected to guess what someone else wants said on the phone and this will make up part of an undergraduate programme that costs upwards of NZ$5800 a year. I would argue that Uni should work on critical literacy and critical numeracy in multiple problem driven contexts. The rest of workplace readiness looks like a risk-driven subsidy to industry, which doesn’t always think too hard about what it really needs. Having said this, graduates will still need jobs and the means to get fed when they finish their studies.
If as suggested, people will change jobs multiple times throughout their career then surely a key skill is to adapt to a changing workplace, not prepare for a specific one. I’ll put that idea next to the phrase so often heard in the 1990’s lifelong learning. But more importantly, the advent of AI and automation will mean that many jobs the we do here and now will disappear in 40 years’ time. I accept that there will still be work, but it won’t be then same work for the next 40 years. Expert systems will get smarter, changing Medicine, Banking, Law etc – I may yet get the music playlist I actually want (though I doubt it). At this point I’m not talking about multiple jobs but almost certainly multiple careers. Whole areas of economy built around cheap labour will go, alongside many “graduate jobs” attached to them. We get a sense of this when the concept of Universal Basic Income becomes a topic of conversation in many new places.
As a device for making a better living, the status of a degree needs to change. It seems that while the graduate premium still holds up, the time required to achieve solvency and relative wealth has increased (in no small part due to the cost of student loans). More students spend more time in work while studying. Economies have not grown in the same way since the global financial crisis. This is not just about wages growth, but growth in jobs across the board. Graduates will still get jobs, but probably in more diverse areas than specified by their respective degree qualifications. In so far as the nature of work is changing and students are paying more for their degrees, graduates will need transferrable skills and more personal development. In this way, they will be better citizens and more durable, or if your will, resilient workers. New degrees should speak no more to the workplace than they do to scholarship, they should be in constant dialogue with society and where it is going.