Higher education arms people with two of the key “soft” skills they need to succeed in work and life, a study by Australian economists has concluded.
But the benefits are incidental, delivered via “exposure to university life” rather than quality teaching or carefully designed curricula.
The study, published in the journal Oxford Economic Papers, claims to provide the first empirical evidence that university education generates non-cognitive skills thought to be essential for a continuously changing and globally expanding labour market.
The teamed tracked 575 high school leavers enrolled in a longitudinal study called the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (Hilda) survey. The researchers compared personality developments among participants who progressed into higher education and those who chose a different path.
The study focused on the “big five” personality traits: emotional stability, openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion and agreeableness. All are considered vital to the functioning of workplaces as well as broader society, the paper says.
The researchers found no evidence that university affected the first three traits. But the study uncovered an enduring influence on the last two, with the links proving strongest among participants who had spent the longest time at university.
In the case of agreeableness, the change was most marked among people from poorer backgrounds. “[They] started from the lowest baseline scores in adolescence, and experienced the steepest growth curve as they entered university,” the paper says.
“This implies that students from disadvantaged backgrounds catch up with their peers from more privileged backgrounds, thus reducing initial levels of inequality.”
The paper concludes that Australian universities are successful in shaping life skills that employers and society value, “at least in the short run”.
“The skill returns of university education and its psychic benefits are substantial for youth from disadvantaged backgrounds,” it adds. “The public discourse is misguided on claiming that university education does not contribute to human capital formation.”
Lead author Sonja Kassenboehmer, of Monash University in Melbourne, said that the disciplines and universities that participants had chosen had made no difference to the results. “It’s not about specific courses or course content,” she said.
“It’s probably more the whole exposure to university life, especially for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. They are coming into a really different environment, and it changes their skills.”
The paper concludes that university education fosters soft skills because “it encourages participation in club activities, social functions and communication with fellow students and academic staff on a continuous basis.
“This conclusion is strengthened by the finding that years spent at university are positively associated with extraversion.”
Dr Kassenboehmer said that the question over whether university imparted such skills was a “very important topic”. It had not previously been researched, she said, because “you need a significant amount of data”.
“We had this unique setting with Hilda. It’s big enough, it’s representative for Australia and it’s a panel dataset over many years.”