Being a student is not something you were – it is something you are

I went to university for a very simple reason – to get a better job than I thought would be available to me if I tried to get one straight out of high school. My first choice – electronic engineering – was not a good one for me, and by the middle of my first year I was looking for a major change.

Thankfully I went to a uni that had a strong course in a totally different field that interested me – journalism – and I was able to transition across. But even in my new course, I was thinking mainly about getting a job, and the experience and grades I’d need to land one.

At no time did I really think about the skills I was acquiring, or how I’d use them. And I definitely wasn’t thinking about the future skills I’d need after I left uni. That was something I figured my career would provide for me.

That thinking could have been a big mistake.

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at the AFR Higher Education Summit, as a guest of TechnologyOne  (thanks Bridget Wyber and the team for inviting me along). My presentation revolved around how technology is changing consumer expectations, and therefor how higher education facilities need to ensure they have flexible underlying systems to respond to these changing expectations.

But that is only one form of flexibility that unis – and students – need to embrace.

For all the talk of the many jobs that might be automated and therefor abolished as a result of automation, there is little concrete evidence of where the replacement jobs might come from. I’ve been involved in a few projects which have sough to speculate and extrapolate from existing data, but even many of the fields where we think job growth might be strongest (such as data analytics and cyber-security), these are also targets for automation.

Whether you believe that technology will continue to create more jobs than it destroys or not, the jobs that will be created are likely to be very different to the ones we have today. Yet we are still training students for jobs that may not exist, or where supply well outstrips demand. Of greater concern is the problem we seem to have when it comes to thinking about retraining those people who currently have jobs, but thanks to automation, soon won’t.

Unfortunately our education system has been based around the idea that students are recruited, trained, and let loose into the world, at which time their economic value to their place of education is pretty much exhausted, barring that small number that go onto do Honours, an MBA or a PhD.

But what if we rethought the relationship between the education provider and the student. What is it was based it on the concept of life-long customer value, so the uni became the student’s lifelong partner in education and career development?

The model might run something like this:

  • You graduate from uni. The uni has already worked with your to facilitate internships and placement services, and checks in regularly to see how your job hunt (or your nascent startup business) is working out.
  • A year later you are contacted for a more in-depth conversation. Have you found work or not? If not, why not? If so, are the skills you have acquired suitable for the workplace? What skills do you wish you had, but uni didn’t give you? This conversation is used to provide feedback into the course design, to improve its suitability for future graduates. If you’ve not found work, the university might invite you back to complete a bridging course to bring you up to speed on the skill sets that employers are now demanding, to ensure you remain fresh.
  • Every year hence your university contacts you regarding the outcomes of these graduate surveys, along with its own employer engagement programs, to inform you of what skills are in demand, and forewarn you of any speed-bumps that might lie in wait thanks to technological changes. It also keeps you abreast of new courses and materials to help your professional development. Some of these are formal learning. Others are casual MOOC courses.

The model might be one where you pick and choose what ongoing education you want and pay on an a la carte basis, or it might be something you subscribe to (education-as-a-service).

Journalism was an early victim of digital disruption, and I have constantly added new skills to enhance my career – from journalist to professional writer to trainer to researcher to author to speaker. While these transitions will be increasingly common for any profession that faces disruption, it is not something that the graduate should have to navigate on their own. For education providers, there is a potentially lucrative economic model that can emerge from staying close to graduates.

Some of the universities I have spoken to recently are developing elements of these kinds of programs, but generally our universities are not great when it comes to alumni programs. That might be in part because students have never seen the need for them.

While any discussion of the future of work is inherently bound up in uncertainty, we nonetheless have to ensure that as professionals we have the capability to cope with that uncertainty. The more skills we acquire, the more flexible and valuable be become. And the only way I know to achieve that is to never stop learning. And there is no reason why the higher education sector shouldn’t be our partner in that.

(Photo by Cole Keister on Unsplash)

One thought on “Being a student is not something you were – it is something you are

  1. Hi Brad,
    Interesting concepts!! There’s no doubt the tertiary education model is broken, or perhaps I should say evolving or being disrupted. The disruption of MOOCs are already providing the ala carte model you mention.
    For employers, university graduation proves three things – an ability to learn, proof of persistence and lastly the building blocks upon which to build a career in the employer’s industry.
    For graduates, a university degree provides a (smaller than they think) proof of competence. What most graduates don’t realise is that perhaps the more powerful outcome is the connections they make. [As an aside, I recently gave a guest lecture to a class of 250… of which only 14 showed up. It wasn’t just me or my subject, but apparently and sadly, a theme pervading all lectures at this university].
    So if in-person courses aren’t attended in person and MOOCs aren’t attended in person and alumni events aren’t attended by anyone, then where are these highly valuable connections formed?
    Within this question lies the answer for unis to prosper from.
    How many people who’ve completed an MBA do you hear say that the interaction sessions with other students were more valuable than the course content?
    Overlapping with your point Brad, universities have the opportunity to get more skillful at connecting people, skills, alumni, research, opportunities, projects, startups, etc… over the lifetime of their career, not just the years where they learn to pass exams without necessarily showing up to lectures. In doing so, they’ll become immune to disruption… but only if the connections created are irreplaceable and invaluable!
    And then there’s the discussion about where education fits in the future of work – which will be done by smaller, more nimble workers/groups (eg freelance, consultant, etc) rather than the large, inefficient corporations of today. I’m betting on smart contracts (perhaps based on blockchain) driving towards this outcome sooner than most might think… and have the start-up to prove it. 🙂
    But that’s all part of a story for another day.

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