Letter from Australia: coming ready or not

Jobs in Australia, as elsewhere in the developed world, are being reshaped by automation, globalisation and demographics. Technology is disrupting every aspect of our lives, including how we get educated, trained, reskilled and upskilled.

People are getting older and will be in the workforce force for longer. Lifelong learning is not just a catch-phrase any more; it’s a brutal reality. If you can’t access the pension until the age of 67 or 70, as is proposed, many of us won’t have an option but to keep working.

This is just one of the many factors that will force universities and vocational colleges to adjust their operating models to be more flexible, offering shorter and more skill-specific courses that meet the needs of working professionals. At the same time, new education start-ups and an emerging EdTech sector is set to disrupt the traditional acquisition of knowledge. Workplace learning, not degrees, will offer business and employees the skills they need in the age of AI.

These themes are not new. If vice chancellors are not being kept awake at night by the impact of the digital revolution on their business models, they should be.

The Gordian knot

A new report from Australian consultancy AlphaBeta for Google echoes much of the oft-repeated mantra of digital disruption but adds a new and interesting spin.

The report Future Skills offers some too-neat numeric solutions to complex problems, but at its heart it captures the Gordian knot of post-secondary education and training: timely, relevant, cost-efficient and quality provision in an era of unprecedented technologically-enhanced change. AlphaBeta comes at the debate by looking at the problem through three lenses: what skills will people need to succeed in the future; when they will need to acquire those skills during their lifetimes and how work and education practices can evolve to ensure these skills are acquired in a timely manner.

It says there will be three types of learners – those reskilling, those upskilling and those preparing to enter the workforce – and it estimates that an additional three hours a week will be required for all workers until they retire. “An additional three hours a week … might not sound like a huge effort, but across a lifetime it means an additional 8,000 hours of training – or 33% more than workers undertake today,” the report says.

What, where and how

AlphaBeta estimates the annual general load of hours in training will need to double to 600 billion hours by 2040 – a big number that seems intrinsically meaningless to me, but I take the point. More importantly, it points out that currently 80% of the education and training we currently undertake happens before the age of 21 and that is going to have to change.

“In the future, workers will not be able be able to rely solely on what they learned as a teenager,” the report says. “To remain employable, workers will need to make a habit of refreshing existing skills and adding new ones throughout their career.” It estimates the amount of training that takes place after the age of 21 will need to increase from the current level of 19% to 41% in 2040 (once again very specific numbers that no one is going to challenge but I wonder at their actual value).

And this is the rub of the nub for the traditional education sector: the fact that workers will “accumulate” additional qualifications and skills through an ongoing parade of short courses and on-the-job training which focus specifically on the skills that are required in the here and now. “Education will need to become a lifelong journey that extends beyond institutional learning,” it says.

The role of government

Of course, the role of government and policy is “to ensure funding and accreditation systems provide the right incentives for the necessary shift towards learning flexibly and later in life.”

That is not currently the case. We have a funding system that disproportionately favours the HE system and an accreditation and regulation system that fails to acknowledge short course education and training. As much as one third of training in Australia goes unrecognised and unaccredited, according to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research.

The current Australian Qualifications Review is grappling with how to (or even whether to) recognise informal learning and it’s deliberations are much anticipated. Hopefully, a likely change in government will not see the Labour Party throw out the work of the review but embrace it as part of its own overarching review of the post-secondary sector.

This is a good report from AlphaBeta that adds to the growing body of work on the future of work and education and skills acquisition.  We all need to be not just thinking about it, but doing it. The new world order will be student-centric, skills-focused and deeply flexible. And it’s happening right now whether universities are ready for it or not.

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