By DAVID MYTON

Among the many thousands of words in the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education’s recent policy discussion document 26 leapt from the page with startling force.

The words, arranged in two sentences on page 99, formed part of Andrew Norton’s paper ‘Universities and the evolving graduate labour market’.

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.”

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.

That lots of 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 were implemented and as more information for students was 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 new report Startup Smarts: universities and the startup economy, a joint project between Universities Australia and Startup Muster, more than four in five startup founders in Australia are university graduates.

Universities Australia’s Chief Executive Belinda Robinson said startups 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.”

A great example of these is UTS’s Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation (BCII) which is in huge demand and a portent of degrees to come.

Inspired (and inspiring) students getting started

Many students are not sitting around passively accepting the apparent dictates of economies and markets. They are getting out and making things happen.

A great example of this is Finland’s Slush, a “movement” driven by entrepreneurially-minded students to bring together startup founders and investors with the goal of building a worldwide startup community.

Some 17,500 people attended its recent Helsinki conference, with representatives from 2,300 startups rubbing shoulders with 1,100 potential investors.

Its next meeting is in Tokyo on March 29 with the not-so-modest ambition of building a “startup ecosystem to ignite the potential in Asia”.

It’s a fair bet that we’ll be seeing much more of this student-driven innovation in the next few years.