2 years ago, when I began my higher education journey, I was convinced that I must study the most expansive and impressive degree. But now, not so much.

Currently, I am studying a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Communications and Media (Dean’s Scholar). Recently, I decided to drop one of my degrees. I was two years into my four-and-a-half year course and I had found that I was completely disinterested in my Bachelor of Arts. Over 4 semesters I had only completed a whopping 3 subjects from this degree. Eventually, it became clear to me that this line of study was not relevant to my future.

Initially, I pondered this decision for quite some time. Because of the conflicted University/Work narrative that is so thoroughly promoted to young Australians through the media, I had two differing perceptions. On one hand, I was confident that my Communications degree could serve as a stand-alone professional training ground. While, I was convinced that I needed additional specialty skills – provided through my Arts degree. So, I had to stop, and think about it rationally:

Midnight Blue and Pink Flowcharts Chart

From here, I got in contact with the university and explored my options. We determined that if I were to transfer to a singular degree, I could complete the remainder of my course in 3 semesters. Excellent news!

Whether or not this decision will be successful for my future is undetermined. But it was successful for me.

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If I were to name this thought-process, I would call it ‘Saying No‘. Often, I take on too many things, because I think I need to, without stopping to consider if those things are beneficial to me. Those close to me would definitely recognise my tendency to do this. A perfect example is my current schedule: a gritty battle between my casual job, full time university, an internship, and managing personal relationships. So, by taking this step I was upholding a value of putting myself first. This is a value I can carry forward with me throughout my career, and most importantly into my next major decision: to Honours, or not to Honours?

But, after contemplating my personal university narrative, I wondered: what is the value in Higher Education?

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Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

“Earn a university degree and get a job. This formula has worked with relative success for over 50 years. But increasingly in many fields today the formula is no longer working.” – Evan Ortlieb

For many, studying at university is a major stepping stone on their pathway towards career employment. In 2016 alone, 330,000 higher education students graduated, joining a growing number of Australians who have a Bachelor Degree, or higher qualification (Universities Australia, 2018). However, the Grattan Institute (2018) reports that in 2017, 28% of recent graduates were yet to find full-time work 4 months after graduating. They propose that this may be a consequence of the inability of the Australian Workforce to accommodate for a growing number of graduates. Ultimately, suggesting that university graduates are getting less value out of their degrees than earlier graduates would have.

However, this may not be solely a consequence of a lagging workforce, but also an aftereffect of a paradigm shift that has been in motion since the 1980’s (Pietsch, 2015). That is, the increased accessibility to higher education, coupled with rapid technological advancements that catalysed an increase in the expectations of university graduates in the workplace. Thus, denoting the value of a bachelor degree on its own, and inciting a ‘credentials creep‘ wherein “the level of educational credential needed to stand out from the crowd has risen steeply” (Bexley, 2016).

So, regarding the Future of Work, where does that leave the value of attaining a degree?

Naturally, it depends on what measure of value we choose to assess the quality output of one’s degree. And, it seems that we are faced with a conundrum similar to that of Neo in The Matrix: Red Pill, or Blue Pill – Graduate Premium, or Personal Value?

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Premium Graduates

Attaining a university degree has many benefits – for individuals, and society alike. For university graduates, a prominent benefit is graduate premium (the increase in wages that they can expect on behalf of their qualifications). While, the public benefits from highly skilled workers who provide “benefits that non-graduates cannot” in the form of “specific knowledge or skills” (Grattan Institute, 2012, p.50).

Seemingly, university graduates are advantaged career-wise and economically. For the Grattan Institute (2012), the “benefits greatly outweigh the costs for most students, and the minority of students who don’t win through higher income never pay for their degrees, as a result of the HELP scheme”. But, even with the comfort of the HELP-scheme-blanket beneath your feet, after spending 3+ years working to earn a very expensive piece of paper, you’d hope that you end up with a high-paying job to make it worth your while. But it might not be so easy to achieve anymore.

“Increasingly, students, particularly the most advantaged, turn to postgraduate education to boost their chances in an overcrowded jobs market, raising questions over credentialism.” – Stephen Parker

As bachelor degrees become more commonplace, the less unique they become – lowering the premium they provide. About the same proportion of people who completed high school in the 1980’s now complete undergraduate university degrees (Bexley, 2016). And, in the same way that high school was a basic qualification in the 1980’s, bachelor degrees are now perceived to provide only foundational knowledge, leaving the skills and experience that employers desire to be acquired elsewhere.

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Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Thus, Australians are increasingly seeking supplementary ways of securing a job – including postgraduate degrees, which Ortileb (2015) describes as “what bachelor degrees represented a generation ago — an upgrade from the status quo”. So, a bachelor degree is no longer a metonymic symbol of premium education. More importance is now placed upon the extra attributes that you possess, such as postgraduate degrees, vocational qualifications, the institution you attended, the extracurricular activities you participated in etc. (Bexley, 2016).

Ultimately, regarding graduate premium, there is reasonable value in completing a bachelor degree, but to wholly capitalise upon this premium, additional qualifications and specialisations are now expected.

 

More Than a Piece of Paper

“Some complain that universities have become too vocational in nature – too focused on jobs, not enough on the art of inquiry.” – Stephen Parker.

A large part of the value in higher education lies outside of the classroom, and is completely unrelated to the financial benefits that a degree provides. When a degree is considered exclusively in “monetary terms”, a large part of the university experience is not accounted for (Pietsch, 2015). For, there is professional value in exchanging varied ideas and opinions, interacting with people who are different, and partaking in extra-curricular activities, because these experiences are just as educational as the classes that students pay for. Especially since employers “select and reward graduate workers on a much wider basis than merely the skills and knowledge developed at university” (Tholen, 2018).

As a professional mentor of mine phrased it, ‘A university degree is essentially product. They want to sell you on the idea of pursuing further education, over and over. But all you need to consider is: what value do you provide for the person who is ‘buying’ your services?’. So, the personal value of a degree becomes the experiences which contribute to an individual’s professional growth, and the skills that they attain outside of the classroom. Because, it is these personal attributes that employers consider when making employment decisions.

Essentially, although university qualifications are appreciated by employers (and are mandatory for certain professions) the personal value of a degree comes in the form of rich experiences which boost an individual’s employability. And, although this seems contrary to the belief that graduate premium is earned through supplementary qualifications, the two go hand-in-hand. Overall, employers are expecting more of graduates than their degree qualification – whether this be specialised skills, further education, or personal attributes.

 

Back to the Future

So, it seems that the university system is stuck halfway between their legacy as an elite education system, and a Future of Work which demands highly skilled workers (Senelmis, 2018). As Senelmis (2018), explains, the “massified model” which has been in place for decades does little to accomodate for the “tidal wave of transformation” that is currently happening. And, this is considered to have catalysed the steady decline in full-time employment rates for Australian graduates. Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Group of Eight affirmed this belief in stating that:

“As a result of the demand driven system, there is an historically high number of Australian graduates moving into what is the hardest graduate market, in more than 25 years” (Quoted by Fernando, 2018).

But why is the graduate market so difficult to break into?

Put quite simply, times are changing, and the foundations of our higher education systems are “outdated” (Dr Heather Dravis quoted in Senelmis, 2018). The Future of Work discourse is overwhelmed with fears about automation, digitalisation, and artificial intelligence. All of which, are impacting the success of university graduates in obtaining full-time employment.

“Machines will be able to carry out more of the tasks done by humans, complement the work that humans do, and even perform some tasks that go beyond what humans can do. As a result, some occupations will decline, others will grow, and many more will change” (Manyika and Sneader, 2018).

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Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

As technology evolves, we must evolve alongside it, or risk becoming superseded by it. Thus, our unique human characteristics – the kind that cannot effectively be replicated in a digital format – have become integral to the Future of Work. This coincides with questioning of the value of university degrees, as change is required to fully equip graduates with the skills that they need to thrive in a workforce that is taking shape around them.

Current university measures of employability place a focus on a graduate’s ability to secure a job that aligns with their discipline of study, rather than their readiness for a career (Docherty, 2014). Which, opposes the demand for upskilling and reskilling generated by the rise of AI, automation and digitalisation. Furthermore, this demand is evident in the increased expectations of university graduates to bring more than their degree to the workplace. As, Biederman (2017) explains, in the Future of Work, any profession has the ability to be “disrupted”, and higher education qualifications do not foster a “capacity to upskill”. So, there appears to be a disconnect between university learning outcomes and the expectations of graduates in the future of work.

 

A final note

Remarkably, despite all of this, we still ask our young Australians to decide what their future will be without allowing them to consider the variables. Often, we pressure them to attend university, but would it be more valuable to let them find their own path – whether this includes higher education or not?

For me, university is definitely a career qualification. For others, it may be an education journey undertaken purely out of curiosity. And, both are fine. Ultimately, the value of a degree is up to the individual to decide. But, regarding graduate premium and personal value, the university system is in urgent need of changes which accommodate for the Future of Work.

 

References

Bexley, E., 2016. Ideas for Australia: Degrees are more necessary than ever before, but the rewards aren’t as great. The Conversation. [online] Available at: <https://theconversation.com/ideas-for-australia-degrees-are-more-necessary-than-ever-before-but-the-rewards-arent-as-great-56912&gt; [Accessed 30 Oct. 2018].

Biederman, R. (2017). The Future of Work Is Continuous Learning and Upskilling – Catalant. [online] Catalant. Available at: <https://gocatalant.com/change-management/the-future-of-work-is-continuous-learning-and-upskilling/&gt; [Accessed 1 Nov. 2018].

Fernando, G., 2018. There’s a new push to recognise that there’s more to success than a university degree. News.com.au. [online] Available at: <https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/parenting/school-life/theres-a-new-push-to-recognise-that-theres-more-to-success-than-a-university-degree/news-story/0545589c79a73c99ff1a5d4cb3c2bcb6&gt; [Accessed 1 Nov. 2018].

Grattan Institute, 2012. Graduate Winners: Assessing the public and private benefits of higher education. [online] Grattan Institute, pp.2-52. Available at: <https://grattan.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/162_graduate_winners_report.pdf&gt; [Accessed 30 Oct. 2018].

Grattan Institute, 2018. Mapping Higher Education Australia 2018. [online] The Grattan Institute. Available at: <https://grattan.edu.au/report/mapping-australian-higher-education-2018/&gt; [Accessed 11 Oct. 2018].

Ortileb, E., 2015. Just graduating from university is no longer enough to get a job. The Conversation. [online] Available at: <https://theconversation.com/just-graduating-from-university-is-no-longer-enough-to-get-a-job-36906&gt; [Accessed 30 Oct. 2018].

Pietsch, T., 2015. How do we value universities?. The Conversation. [online] Available at: <https://theconversation.com/how-do-we-value-universities-40005&gt; [Accessed 30 Oct. 2018].

Senelmis, S., 2018. Higher education: one of Australia’s biggest exports. [Blog] The University of Melbourne. Available at: <https://mspace.unimelb.edu.au/news/higher-education-one-of-australia-biggest-exports&gt; [Accessed 30 Oct. 2018].

Tholan, G., 2018. University isn’t the be all and end all when it comes to employment outcomes. The Conversation. [online] Available at: <https://theconversation.com/university-isnt-the-be-all-and-end-all-when-it-comes-to-employment-outcomes-103180&gt; [Accessed 31 Oct. 2018].

Universities Australia, 2018. Data Snapshot 2018. [online] Universities Australia. Available at: <https://www.universitiesaustralia.edu.au/australias-universities/key-facts-and-data#.W76czRMzaRu&gt; [Accessed 11 Oct. 2018].

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Vasily Koloda

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