by Michael Tomlinson

The latest higher education reform package stands in a long tradition of governments wanting to exert more control and make their funding stretch further by multiplying programs within a given stream of expenditure, and attaching strings to them.

But pulling on these strings doesn’t achieve the objective if the objective is not well considered.

The base assumption in Education Minister Dan Tehan’s package is that the education system needs to provide graduates for the jobs of the future, and that the government knows what educational programs those graduates will need to complete. Ministers of education the world over assume that their economies will need more graduates with technical skills rather than generalists.

But is the assumption evidence-based? The broadest source of information available are collected opinions from experts such as in the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report (2018), based on a survey of the Chief Human Resources Officers of their global members.

The report does find that “the sharply increased importance of skills such as technology design and programming highlights the growing demand for various forms of technology competency identified by employers surveyed.” However, it goes on to add: “proficiency in new technologies is only one part of the 2022 skills equation, however, as ‘human’ skills such as creativity, originality and initiative, critical thinking, persuasion, and negotiation will likewise retain or increase their value, as will attention to detail, resilience, flexibility and complex problem-solving.”

Governments do not have a good track record of identifying future market needs, and the discussion paper does not reveal the evidentiary basis for its findings. There seems every reason for believing that the world’s HR chiefs are right, and that a mix of technical skills and “human” skills will be needed into the future, whichever way economies develop.

In developed countries like Australia the current trend towards services and away from technology-based manufacturing is expected to continue. Yes, there will be continued growth in IT-based companies like Atlassian and portals supporting the exchange of goods and services. But while IT might form a base layer of these companies, someone will need to understand what the customers are looking for, how their minds work, how to get the best out of the employees and so on.

And someone will have to communicate with the public and the stakeholders to convince them that the companies are providing a desirable, socially-acceptable set of products and services. All of this requires humanistic skills and understanding, and the study of the humanities will continue to be a good foundation for both employees and their managers. The study of society will continue to be relevant to many fields, including for example, the design of government programmes.

Arguably, the most employable graduate would be someone with both humanistic skills and technical skills as well. We should be encouraging accountants to study Shakespeare and Captain Cook as well as encouraging Arts students to study IT.

Of course, there are many other ways in which the humanities support civil society, but the main premise of the proposed package is to steer students towards “work relevant programmes”.

Governments need to consult and think much more broadly about what the full spectrum of work is going to look like, and what programs will be relevant to all its parts.

Dr Michael Tomlinson
HE governance and quality consultant and Director, Assurance Group TEQSA (to
January 2020)


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