Universities need to learn the early lessons of lifelong learning

Ongoing falls in Australian postgraduate recruitment suggest a trend away from structured education for people in mid-career, says Andrew Norton

January 6, 2020
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For years, future of work reports have warned of major disruption. Artificial intelligence is spreading automation from the factory floor to the offices of university-educated professionals. Workers in jobs that don’t disappear will need different skills and regular retraining.

This scenario sounds promising for universities and other education providers, who can prosper from lifelong learners. But recent enrolment data suggest a more complex relationship between work and further education. While overall Australian postgraduate student numbers remain high by historical standards, fewer domestic students commenced postgraduate coursework degrees in 2018 for the fourth consecutive year, amounting to a 10 per cent fall since 2014’s peak.

Moreover, overall numbers are trending downwards despite the growing pool of prospective postgraduates; since 2014, Australia's total population of graduates is up by 9 per cent.

Not all postgraduate sectors are in decline. Health, IT and science enrolments continue to grow. And universities are responding to the needs of time-poor working students; 2018 was the first year in which domestic online commencing postgraduate students outnumbered students starting their studies on-campus. But these developments aren’t enough to reverse the overall trend, with sharp enrolment reversals in teacher education and business courses, as well as smaller falls in several other fields.

Specific issues are affecting demand for teacher education courses. But the decline of postgraduate business courses, with enrolments down 20 per cent in four years, reflects a broader trend away from structured education for people in mid-career.

At least eight different Australian statistical time series show this trend, which is also evident in vocational education and work-related training that does not result in a qualification. Enrolment and participation trends are backed by personal surveys of reasons for training, employer training activity surveys and tax data on self-education expenses.

That diverse datasets all point to the same conclusion suggests that there is something going on beyond the idiosyncrasies of any one educational sector, industry or occupation.

This something is likely to be short online education and training, including how-to guides on Google and YouTube, as well as study modules on LinkedIn Learning and Moocs. Compared with more structured forms of learning, the educational material on these sites is free or very cheap, highly focused on specific skills and available when the learner needs it.

No trend data are available, but use of these educational tools is already widespread. A Pearson Education survey last year revealed that a third of Australians who needed further education found it online and self-taught, compared with less than 20 per cent who enrolled in a university course. UK respondents made similar choices.

Universities know there is a market for education that costs less in time and money than a degree. In Australia, most universities offer or are developing microcredentials, sometimes with potential credit towards a degree. But demand may be limited.  

Compared with online videos or modules by unaccredited providers, microcredentials offer the credibility of university brands. But for working adults needing some new knowledge or skill, that branding may not be especially valuable. They don’t need a university to vouch for their learning with a credential. They can directly demonstrate their skills to their employer.

This conclusion is supported by a Swinburne University survey on learning to work with digital technologies, nearly half of whose respondents preferred to self-teach or learn on the job, compared with 8 per cent who wanted to enrol in a microcredential.

Young people entering the workforce, or older people seeking major career changes, are likely to still want a full qualification rather than a microcredential. These learners need new sets of interrelated skills and knowledge, and courses leading to full qualifications put these together in a coherent way. The degree and university brand are needed to give employers the confidence to try a new person without proven workplace achievement.

Hence, postgraduate degrees will still make up a large share of all university enrolments. But the current decline in their market share is illustrative of the fact that universities are both beneficiaries and losers as technological change affects not just what skills employees need, but how they acquire them.

Andrew Norton is professor in the practice of higher education policy at the Centre for Social Research and Methods, Australian National University.


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