Universities must change their mindsets to address skills emergency

Australian universities face uncertain and challenging times in 2022 and are feeling either wildly excited or deeply threatened by it, according to education and technology leader Martin Bean CBE.

Emeritus Professor Bean, Founder and CEO of The Bean Centre and former Vice-Chancellor of RMIT University, says skills are “the new currency” in the employment economy, and this is creating both critical challenges and enormous opportunities for the higher education sector.

“It’s all about the jobs, baby!”

In a stimulating lunchtime presentation at Wells Advisory, Martin recalled the mantra of a colleague from his days working at Microsoft and said universities needed to recognise that “It’s all about the jobs, baby!”. Most Australian workers were in non-resilient occupations and the traditional ‘front-loaded’ higher education model no longer equipped them with all the skills they would need throughout their careers and lives, Professor Bean noted. “There’s been a lot of talk about the future of work, but the future is right now.”

Martin said the Australian economy was facing a “skilling emergency” characterised by widespread skills mismatches, deficits and redundancies, and this had been further amplified by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Skills shifts in the economy are increasing the demand for lifelong learning, but employers are largely not looking to higher education providers to meet their upskilling and reskilling needs,” he warned.

Many of the generic skills employers needed were also behaviours and attributes necessary for graduates to lead fulfilling and satisfying lives, but these were challenging to develop and difficult to assess in a traditional higher-education setting. “We need to move beyond the mindset that students will gain these skills and attributes simply by being at university.”

Industry-backed certifications and micro-credentials

Industry is, according to Martin, increasingly looking to alternative providers and alternative credentials to address the skills emergency. “Many employers will view a red-hot industry-backed certification on your resumé as far more valuable than an undergraduate degree”.

Martin pointed out that traditional university planning processes and governance mechanisms for award courses were not geared to responding rapidly to changing industry needs. “It can take up to five years from an idea to having the first cohort of students enrolled, and a further three to five years for those students to reach the labour market.”

He said shorter, more flexible credentials were increasingly of greater value to both learners and employers. A key recommendation by Emeritus Professor Bean and Emeritus Professor Peter Dawkins AO in their recent Review of University-Industry Collaboration in Teaching and Learning, released in December 2021, was that higher education providers needed to work in partnership with industry to develop and deliver industry-focused micro-credentials.

Martin’s presentation was the first of a series of high-level thought leadership discussions for the higher education sector being planned for 2022 by Wells Advisory.

“It was tremendous to have Martin join us to kick off the academic year and our series of guest speakers,” said Wells Advisory Managing Director Michael Wells. “Martin has had an extraordinary career as a higher education leader, thinker and innovator, and he has a clear vision of how technology is changing our lives and what to do about it.” “We’re looking forward to announcing our next guest speaker very soon, so watch this space!”