By DAVID MYTON

Among the many thousands of words in the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education’s report Visions for Australian Tertiary Education 26 leapt from the page with startling force. The words, arranged in two sentences, formed part of Andrew Norton’s paper ‘Universities and the evolving graduate labour market’. (See page 91 of the Visions report)

This is what they said:

“It has never been easier to become a university student. But it has never been harder for university graduates to get work that uses their skills.” (p99)

Norton was examining the merits of Australian higher education’s demand-driven system, which, he says, has given universities more capacity and stronger incentives to focus on skills shortages and graduate employability.

While the system has largely been successful, it is now challenged by a surge in student numbers that has produced more graduates than the labour force needs in high-skill occupations.

The result is that a large numbers of graduates are working in jobs that do not require higher education qualifications.

Employment outcomes

That too many graduates are chasing too few jobs is hardly breaking news in Australia and elsewhere.

Nevertheless, universities cannot wash their hands of it all and say “not our problem”.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham has made it clear that it is – and that they will be held accountable if graduates are left jobless and skill-less.

Last year in a speech to the Australian Industry Group the Minister said he wanted to encourage excellence in innovation in universities – and the measure of that excellence had to be “employment outcomes for graduates, and the achievement of those employment outcomes …”

And at the Universities Australia conference in March he warned that government policy would incentivise universities “to make optimal decisions about who to enrol, how many students they enrol, and what they enrol them in”.

Universities must be accountable for student outcomes, he said.

“Are they successfully completing their courses? Are they getting a better job when they finish than would otherwise have been the case? Are they entering the workforce job ready? Are graduates collectively meeting the economic needs of Australia?”

 So what is being done?

Minister Birmingham noted that increasingly more information was being provided to students to help them decide on the right courses and what their likely job and earnings prospects would be.

This process would continue as all 14 recommendations of the Higher Education Standards Panel on admissions transparency are implemented, and as more information for students is provided on the QILT website.

However, many universities are getting proactive, going beyond information supply to providing new courses and opportunities for students.

If there isn’t a job, invent it

Lifetime careers and steady jobs are becoming a thing of the past – so why not make your own?

Universities around the country are now offering courses in innovation and entrepreneurship having recognised that the employment world is rapidly changing.

According to a recent report Startup Smarts: universities and the startup economy, a joint project between Universities Australia and Startup Muster, more than four in five start-up founders in Australia are university graduates.

Universities Australia’s Chief Executive Belinda Robinson said start-ups were projected to create more than half a million jobs over the coming decades and were already contributing more than $160 billion to the Australian economy.

“Universities are the key ingredient in this promising part of our economy,” she said.

“They provide the skills, training, support and the physical space to nurture the next generation of entrepreneurs.”

Robinson said many students now wanted to start their own businesses and careers rather than work for someone else.

“A growing and impressive list of university programs and courses help students to learn the entrepreneurial skills they will need to turn a clever idea into a new Australian business.”