Key Note Address to 3rd Annual Graduate Employment Outcomes & Industry Partnerships Forum, Sydney. We are a poorer nation if we do not see the wisdom in valuing our entire post-secondary system.

30 Jul 2018
Thank you for the invitation.

It is a great pleasure to be asked to speak at this Graduate Employment and Industry Partnerships Forum.

It’s a subject I am very passionate about, so please bear with me as I give you some context to my passion.

I guess one way to put it is that when, back in 1995, Prime Minister Paul Keating told a protesting student to ‘go get a job’ - and I was the ABC journalist at the time who captured that comment -   most people watching the controversy the comment caused unfold in the media, would have felt extremely confident that the student could do exactly that.

Today the community is much more concerned about the value of a degree, and the employability of our graduates.

As Chief Executive of the Go8 which represents Australia’s eight leading research-intensive universities, with seven of our members ranked in the world’s top 100, I can state with confidence that there is much value in the right student choosing the right degree, and that our graduates are very employable.

However, in Australia, at this point in time, there are issues for the sector, and we do need to be prepared to both admit that and solve them.

I am sure there are probably some in the audience today, who heard me more than three years ago here in Sydney, speak of the need for us to take a good hard holistic look at post-secondary education.

In particular, the need to stop the pressure on young people which, especially since the start of the demand driven system, has made them feel they are a nobody if they don’t undertake a university degree the moment they finish school.

I would never assert that there are too many students enrolled in university. A university degree from a quality institution helps to develop a range of skills and capabilities from which careers can be built, regardless of discipline.

However, the choice to undertake the 3 to 4 years of full time study needed to obtain a bachelor’s degree should be a carefully considered one, crafted towards the best fit for you and your career.

It should not be a matter of default.

And nor is it likely – as careers get longer and the workplace evolves – to be the only qualification necessary to succeed as we transition to a more knowledge and technology-based economy.

If Australia is to successfully negotiate the challenges of this transition, we will need a more sophisticated approach to post-secondary education, enabling different skills and abilities to be developed, at different career stages, through different delivery models.

Yet, while undergraduate degree enrolments have grown substantially, important sub-degree programs in vocational education have languished.

In 2016, there were 242,000 more students in higher education than if 2008 participation levels had been maintained; yet, 132,000 fewer enrolments in vocational education and training.

It has always seemed the great irony to me, that a system that was conceived to create more equitable access to higher education, gave birth at the same time, to what amounts to almost a repudiation of the alternative pathways to acquiring a range of valuable skills that our nation needs.

I said three years ago, and I was chastised by some for doing so, and I say it again now: it is undeniable that society needs graduates of the TAFE system as much as it needs those from university.

In fact, as time goes on we may well see more and more people becoming both.

We are a poorer nation if we do not see the wisdom in this.

There is a need to recognise the immense value of school leavers choosing careers they love and know they can be achieve in; whether it’s as a neurosurgeon or tree surgeon.

Achieving utopia is unrealistic. But my passion comes from truly believing that we are better human beings – that we work better, we deliver more – if we can find satisfaction in how we spend the many hours of each week that we work.

Society is a multi-faceted canvas. Most people would agree that neurosurgery is a valuable and worthwhile – even noble – profession. But a society comprised only of neurosurgeons would be an abject failure.

We must value those who choose not to choose university……. as much as the Go8 values its students.

The world, its economies, its social fabric, needs a diverse skills base that can deliver the whole.

If that all sounds a far too philosophical start to a keynote speech, I would say it is actually at the heart of what this forum is about.

Because, while I am here to speak specifically about the Go8, the Go8 does not function as an island.

We are acutely aware, that our determination to take quality students and have them become highly employable quality graduates, is only part of the skills equation.

It is not the answer to everything, but it does deliver much to the nation and to the world. 

Another refrain of mine, and maybe some of you are sick of hearing it, is that you don’t have to have a university degree to benefit from a university education…. Think of, as just a few examples, aeroplanes, cars, roads, overpasses and underpasses, the bridges, the buildings, the technology you are using, the Wi-Fi, the teachers, pharmacists, accountants, lawyers, doctors, paramedics and nurses.

I have only scratched the surface of our lives which, frankly, we could not live healthily, safely or successfully, without universities, their teaching and their research, as an integral part of society.

But nor are we likely to do so without plumbers, electricians, fire safety inspectors, and those trained in food safety, all of which is delivered through VET.

So, I strongly champion a holistic review of post-secondary education.    I am committed to all sectors within that umbrella being able to move forward together.  To us having a unified strategy for managing skills, advising school leavers, and importantly with all of us having access to a cohesive future planning model that equips us with knowledge of the skills needs, employment trends and timelines of the future.

Frankly, we will need this if we are to negotiate the looming challenges of automation, globalisation, big data and other disruptions we have not even conceived of yet.

Yet currently we do not have that data.

As I see it, post-secondary education in Australia needs disruption if it is to have a next successful phase.

At the same time, we must work through, because we are charged with educating the nation’s future workforce, a period of concern about employment disruption.

How we will manage employment and employability through this latest disruption phase and into what is loosely labelled 'the new economy', is taken very seriously by the universities that I'm representing here today. 
We provide the nation's economy with 96,000 eminently employable graduates each and every year, who are graduating into a marketplace which is far from the welcoming environment of just a generation ago.

Full-time employment rates for Australian graduates measured at four months after graduation have been on the decline since the global financial crisis.    We also recognise that, as a result of the demand driven system, there is an historically high number of Australian graduates moving into what is the hardest graduate market, in more than 25 years.

On a more positive note, while there have been headlines that graduates are not sufficiently equipped for the workforce, that assertion is contradicted by the government's own Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching website, known as QILT.

It shows very high rates of employer satisfaction with recent university graduates—as high as 80 per cent satisfaction. In other words, once employed, graduates receive a very high rating from their employer.

It is worth stating as we discuss what happens after graduation, that for the Go8 especially, using the four-months after graduation measurement to judge graduate employment success does not work.

A higher proportion of our graduates choose to continue on to postgraduate study, masters and PhD, than from any other university grouping.
Around 21.6 per cent of graduates across the sector go on to further full-time study. But post graduate study for the Go8 averages around 30 per cent, and it is as high as 52 per cent at the University of Melbourne.

We also produce 50 per cent of all of the nation's PhD completions. So that obviously makes it harder to categorise positive Go8 graduate outcomes if they're to be judged only as immediate employment.

Basically, each year many of our most talented graduates are not competing in the labour market for full-time employment for the good reason that they're going on to advanced levels of study.    I make an observation here as we unpick graduate employment outcomes, one that’s extremely important to the ethos of the Go8, and, I would assert, to all universities.

We would always say that our role is to ensure our graduates are employable. We would all want our graduates to find the employment they want, and we will continue to assert that a degree will definitely assist their skills base to do so: but we are not job factories.

To us that’s a very critical point as we deal with a workforce that is likely to be characterised by change and disruption for some time to come.

It is the Go8’s view, that too-narrow a fixation on simplistic outcomes—the job factory outlook - that says a law degree is a failure unless you gain employment as a lawyer, misses the point.

The point being that in today’s world, the best way to manage continual change and disruption is to learn how to adapt skills and knowledge to be effective, to deliver a competitive edge.

Who could deny the value of a legally trained professional to employers working in contract negotiations, conveyancing, policy analysis, industrial relations, retail and management, for example?

It would be ridiculous to claim that these graduate talents are somehow wasted just because they don't have the word 'solicitor' on their business card.

While no one can predict the future, it is very likely that the word that will best characterise the workplace over the next few decades is: change.

How can any institution – be it a school, institute or university – operate effectively as a job factory in this context, when many of the jobs our graduates will have throughout their careers may not even exist yet? May end up being jobs they actually invent themselves?

We're very proud that employers say our graduates are the most sought after in Australia, but we also recognise that in this rapidly changing world our graduates will need to thrive in an environment their grandparents could not have imagined.

It’s why in 2018, as universities, our role is to ensure that our graduates are employable and adaptable for that future.

It’s why being categorised as job factories so rankles.

I would say strongly that we should not be viewed in that context. I will quote Dr Michael Spence, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney who succinctly describes the role of universities:

Our role is to teach students to question respectfully, to disagree well but also to challenge assumptions and test both themselves and the idea that they and others assume to be true. In short, we will continue to prepare them to live good lives, to make a positive contribution to society and to use their knowledge for the public good.

We would always want to be universities from which our graduates, and those who continue on to postgraduate study, can say they learned the hard and soft skills, and gained the knowledge needed to forge a career pathway that both fulfils them and contributes to society.

That’s not a job factory, but it is the delivery of employable graduates.

So, we work hard to have our graduates become valuable members of society, and not necessarily just in their undergraduate field of study.

In my own office, for example, I employ three valued staff, all of whom engage in policy analysis, advocacy and strategic thinking, using skills they developed during PhD studies in musicology, humanities, social science and pure mathematics.

I personally also always find that it’s good to do a stock take.

Because when we do, despite everything this current disruption is throwing at us, we find both that it’s not all bad out there, and also that this period of disruption is not as unusual as has been depicted.

A paper with the title False Alarmism: Technological Disruption and the U.S. Labor Market, 1850-2015, looked at job churn in the US context—the number of jobs lost and the number of jobs gained—over the period from 1850 to 2015.

In total, it showed that the rate of occupational churn today is actually at its lowest in that entire period from 1850 to 2015 and job losses are half what they were in the sixties, the seventies and the nineties.

I’m not saying that change isn’t coming. But I do maintain the belief that with the right tools  - including a diverse and multi-faceted skill set – we will manage this period of disruption, as change is now labelled, just as we have managed periods of change across all aspects of society for many hundreds of years.
Note this emphasis – “with the right tools”.

Currently, the post-secondary area more broadly, is not well equipped with the right tools.

Put simply, in Australia, there is no longer access to high-level strategic advice on employment forecasting, and the question has to be asked: why not?

If we're serious about managing employment change, then why would we not have access to such vital information for analysis and policy formulation? Educators need it.

You can only fly blind for so long, because today's world, as we know, moves fast. Sectors evolve and sectors crash.    A skills shortage can turn into a skills glut in the years between student enrolment and student graduation.

Government must re-establish a national capability to provide high-level strategic advice on workforce and employment forecasting.

For example, the now-defunct Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency was enabled to undertake research and develop long-term strategy in key areas that informed industry activity and direction.

Such a body or something similar -  may have   been able to resolve a conundrum that currently confounds us.   Namely …..why do we have an economy increasingly reliant on STEM skills, with business asking for more STEM graduates, yet STEM graduates show up as having amongst the highest rate of under-employment.

STEM, as we know, underpins a differentiated and readily adaptable economy that is globally competitive. It contributes to our research and it contributes to our competitive advantage, in an economic sense, with our very near neighbours, particularly in the Asian region.

But we are faced with this disconnect.

Between 2007 and 2016, of the 1.9 million domestic students who graduated, roughly 20 per cent graduated in STEM disciplines, with almost half of them coming from the eight universities that I represent.

A significant proportion of those STEM graduates who were in full-time work soon after completing their degree, have indicated that they're working in jobs that don't fully utilise their skills or their expertise.

Employers in business and industry were clearly not knocking down their door.
So it seems there's a clear need for national policy decisions to deliver the tools to understand the reasons why this is happening.

Until we do, I wonder how long we will have business and industry saying we need more STEM graduates.

Another area where we have a significant gap in visibility is in how we track our students -  there is no single student identifier for all students across all post-secondary education.

Indeed, The Smith Family recently suggested a unique student identifier at school level as a way to monitor and evaluate educational investment and initiatives. We would argue that we need to stretch that across the entire system.

Educators have been crying out for it, and, frankly, we think it's a no-brainer. The current system across the tertiary sector is so fragmented as to be virtually useless in terms of our planning capacity.

So we have students who take an income-contingent loan for higher education study, and they receive the Commonwealth Higher Education Student Support Number, or CHESSN, and then nearly all students in vocational education receive a Unique Student Identifier, a USI.

But, there's no real way of tracking the CHESSN against the USI, so we have no reliable way of seeing how aligned our tertiary sector is for students.

It sounds very simplistic, but, if we had a single student identifier, we could track where those students are going, from university to TAFE or from TAFE to university, and we would have a fuller picture of where demand might be being met or not being met.

Because the best model for Australia is likely to be a complimentary one, where VET and higher education are seen less as competitors, and more as partners to enable people to be active and effective contributors to society across their entire – and lengthening – working lives, even as the workplace changes around them.

Also if a student decides to move between universities at present, the university they leave has no visibility as to where they have gone to continue their study, and in fact the student is wrongly therefore recorded as an attrition figure;  someone who has left the system without graduating.

Meanwhile the university they have arrived at has no visibility as to where they have been.

It’s plain silly.

Without that visibility to such a rich stream of data, knowing how and where students are moving, how do we actually make more accurate assumptions and policy around post-secondary education?

We don't believe that we can, which reminds me of a pertinent quote about data:

You can have data without information, but you cannot have information without data.

Can I re-stress I am not asking for anything big brother here.

I'm talking about something that is a single student identifier that is with you for life, used only for education and whether you're studying at 25 or 55, so that we have longitudinal data that the sector and the Government can actually work with to inform policy.

The United States has had this for a long time – through their social security number – and - all Trump jokes aside – the sky has not yet fallen in.

I do have an excellent example of how much we all operate in the data dark – the mining boom.

I was working for a different group of universities at that point, and there was, obviously, during that time, a shortage of mining engineers, and those universities I was working with were impressive in how they ramped up their efforts to educate mining engineers.

It wasn’t easy, for a number of reasons. One being that those potential students could immediately get better paid jobs driving trucks in the north-west of Western Australia rather than studying.

Unfortunately, those who did choose to study and dedicate four or five years of their time, or six years in some cases, to getting a mining engineering degree didn't then find there were large number of expected jobs waiting on them.

By the time they had graduated, the sector had changed.

A skills shortage had become a skills glut between enrolling and graduating. And while those students were enrolling, mining companies were so desperate they were bringing in international mining engineers.

It is therefore obvious that we need far better future employment information. If we had been better informed we would have been better able to manage future workforce planning.

Today nothing has changed. We are still stumbling in the data dark.

There is this gap somewhere.

I don't profess to know what that gap is.

I note we have the department of employment collecting data; we've got the ABS providing data, we've got industry doing something else, we've got Immigration doing something else, we've got the university sector collecting what data they can and we've got TAFE.

We’ve got these disparate things happening in all of these disparate areas re future planning but what's pulling that together to give us a national picture of where we will need jobs for the future?

Nothing and no-one.

So at the risk of repeating myself, there remains a gap. We're all doing something.  It's about how we bring that together and ask: 'Why do we have underemployment in particular areas? Why do we have so many students wanting to study law?'

Studying law is not a bad thing in and of itself, but there needs to be some expectation management with students who do study law and think that this means they will be able to find employment as a lawyer.   Because we all know that the job market is tough in that area.

So I think it is timely to undertake a system-wide review so we look at both what we are actually producing for the economy and vitally what is needed for the economy.

That would be the Go8’s fundamental reason for supporting a review.

If I can leave you with these three main points I would be very happy to take questions.

First it is past time, as I said three years ago, to start looking at the post-secondary education system from a more holistic viewpoint and valuing all sectors within it.

Second in a nation where we all carry a Medicare Card and happily hand out our credit card details to the digital economy,  can we please sensibly deliver a single student identifier for use whenever anyone accesses the education system – be it at three, thirty, sixty or ninety.

It’s not big brother, it’s common sense.   Third, can Government please support us to deliver the graduate outcomes our quality graduates aspire to and deliver the skills our nation’s business and industry require when they require it.

To ignore the need to deliver future employment planning analysis for Australia makes no sense.

Thank you