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DON EDGAR AND PATRICIA EDGAR. University reforms needed for the longevity economy.

27 October 2017

Tinkering at the edges of university financing and student loan repayments ignores the tsunami of social change that is the real challenge for Australia's future higher education system. Nick Xenophon is right to call for a full-scale inquiry into higher education; it is a mess, not catering to Australia's future needs. 

Technology and increasing automation of the workplace will produce a completely different scenario and, with life expectancy increasing to well over 80, every individual will face the need to retrain, relearn, unlearn, shift jobs and reinvent themselves several times. Education as 'preparation' for a job should be reframed as a process of lifelong learning, constantly adapting, learning new skills, changing focus.

Universities are out of touch with the new reality: offering degrees, with fixed subjects, strict course requirements, fees based on full-time study, a lack of varied entry and exit points, prohibitive fees for higher degrees, no recognition of the growing need for mature-age entry schemes.

There are already over 7 million people in what we call the new middle age, aged between 50 to 75, the best educated, most productive, skilled and experienced group Australia has ever seen. Most of them remain in the workforce, want to stay being useful and earning a living, but face the challenge of keeping up with technological and workplace change as we move into a service-based, information economy. Many are discriminated against in the workplace, the first to be made redundant, not offered training opportunities and then ignored as too old when applying for a new job.

Governments would be wise to recognise that education and training policies are not just for the young; they must increasingly cater for the needs of this experienced and politically active third of Australia's population.

The 'lump of labour fallacy' - that the old should give way for the young and not hold on to jobs too long - has been exposed already in Europe, where population ageing is ahead of ours. Australia has a middle-ageing population, not an ageing one, and the jobs such people do cannot be done well by young new entrants. The cost-benefits of retaining our mature workers, offering them retraining and more flexible work arrangements, outweigh the younger workers' lower productivity and commitment. Wall St banker and Donald Trump adviser David Solomon recently predicted business itself will have to enter the retraining scene and invest in their current workforce as AI ramps up and new skilled workers cannot be found (The Australian, 23 September, 2017). In fact, companies such as AT&T are already cooperating with universities to offer bespoke courses upgrading the skills of their experienced workers. They even give these employees up to $30,000 to pay for them.

Some 40% of the Australian work-force face the likelihood of jobs being replaced by computers in the next 10-15 years, yet they cannot commit to a full degree with rigid course requirements. That means tertiary education will have to shift towards more open enrolment practices, better recognition of prior work experience and learning, and a more tailor-made approach to degrees based on student choice and self-learning practices. The old days of lectures plus tutorials are gone, to be replaced by what is called 'the flipped classroom' and hands-on, problem-solving activity.

Universities can no longer be the domain of academic master-teachers. They will have to adopt the Bunnings Model - utilising the experience of middle-aged people as mentors, tutors, on-the-job supervisors, teachers in TAFE colleges, schools. Self-learning will also triumph over top-down teaching. The rich sources of the internet, MOOCs run by top overseas universities, even YouTube and exchange learning via Skype, are all just as effective in training for the new world of work as any static university course of lectures and tutorials.

Some Australian universities are ahead of the game, and they are not of the G8 mould. For example, La Trobe University's model of  University 4.0   aims to provide more on-demand learning, fewer fixed course requirements and students tailoring their own degrees to suit existing skills and future needs; linking on-campus, online and blended courses; shorter cycle qualifications and credentials that respond more quickly to industry changes and the changing needs of the workforce; and a stronger focus on career management for students, including post-university 'top-ups' and new skills upgrading.

Deakin University, in cooperation with Westpac, has formed DeakinCo, to recognise 'soft' skills (critical for a range of business functions) and existing workplace experience as part credits for a degree or diploma. Deakin allows people to start postgraduate courses at any time, breaking them up into two-week 'sprints' which can be scheduled to suit other life demands and responsibilities. The University of New England allows students not wanting a full degree to freely choose courses that suit their needs and assemble them into a 'bespoke' course, mixing and matching across different areas and levels of study.

Such changes won't be easy to implement with current regulations and funding cuts, but they are at least trying to respond to 'The Longevity Economy', where lifelong learning will involve closer physical collaboration between university researchers and industry/business, universities acting as brokers of the links between young entrepreneurs and potential mentors, supporters and funders.

Another challenge to our current university model comes from technology itself. Lecture rooms are already emptying because lectures can be viewed online. Yet the high quality  tutoring that should follow as a corollary is missing. Why go to a university at all?

Silicon Valley's MOOCs allow people to learn what they need to know right now, and are challenging traditional face-to-face university classes. They cost much less and, like Netflix, learning is available on demand. Students can gather online micro-credentials, made up of various MOOCs strung together into an attractive CV. A firm called MicroMasters already has over a million enrolments, Coursera a similar number. Some major firms are starting to employ people without degrees, but with online qualifications. They perform equally well.

The older universities need to wake up. This is the way of the future yet, predictably, many academics and policy-makers fail to see it coming.

The middle-aged are better prepared than young people for the new service economy and may need little training to adapt from their past jobs into ones involving community and personal services. But they will demand attention to their needs and are unlikely to accept a system that continues to focus on an outmoded idea of education as preparation for a job that won't be there, even for the young, in a few years' time.

Dr Patricia Edgar and Dr Don Edgar are co-authors of PEAK: Reinventing middle age (Text, 2017)