Opinion article

Bridging the higher education/industry gap

Ahead of his appearance at CEDA’s State of the Nation forum, Professor Peter Dawkins AO discusses the growing need for collaboration between industry and higher education, as he leads the Federal Government’s University-Industry Collaboration in Teaching and Learning Review.  

As we come out of the COVID-19 recession, the Federal Government and the Reserve Bank have committed to getting us to full employment. But as border closures continue to interrupt the flow of immigration and international students, employers are voicing growing concerns about labour and skill shortages.

This highlights the role that our education and training system should play, working closely with industry, to help fill the skills and capability gaps, and promote sustained economic and employment growth in the years ahead.

A changing jobs market

Against this backdrop, we should recognise that since the Global Financial Crisis young people have found it increasingly difficult to move from education to skilled careers. There have been fewer entry level jobs and more competition from older workers, and employers have been placing an increasing premium on experience rather than just qualifications. The employment and wage outcomes of those in their 20s have been going backwards relative to older, more experienced workers.

At the same time, the nature of work is increasingly changing from relatively routine tasks to more complex capabilities. Thus, employers are placing increasing emphasis on the importance of general capabilities such as problem-solving, teamwork, communication skills and creativity. As well as the need to help young people find their way into skilled employment pathways, there is increasing need for mature-aged workers to up-skill and re-skill in this rapidly-changing work environment.

At the tertiary level, vocational education participation has declined as higher education participation has risen. Higher education is now the dominant way for young people to prepare for their careers, which raises important questions about how universities should work with industry in the years ahead.

Reviewing the university/industry connection

In this context, the Federal Minister of Education and Youth Affairs has asked outgoing RMIT Vice-Chancellor Professor Martin Bean and myself to lead a review into university-industry collaboration in teaching and learning, to report at the end of August. We will be exploring these issues with industry, government and our colleagues in tertiary education. The aim is to find ways to help unlock the potential of young people while enhancing the careers of the mature aged, all while improving outcomes for industry development and sustained economic growth.   

How does work-integrated learning need to be enhanced to provide richer work experience for students that clearly enhances their skills and promotes their skilled employment prospects? Should we place more emphasis on cadetships and internships and advanced apprenticeships in industry, supported by fit-for-purpose tertiary education?

What have we learned about the role of micro-credentials, from the introduction of Commonwealth-supported short courses leading to undergraduate and graduate certificates, to help with the COVID recovery?

How do teaching and learning need to be reformed to help young people and mature-aged workers develop the capabilities they need for success in the labour market?

How can universities collaborate with industry and the wider education system, including schools and the vocational-education sector, to help young people move successfully into skilled careers and continually up-skill and re-skill thereafter?

These are critically important questions and the time is ripe to address them. It is pleasing that a recent member survey by the Australian Industry Group revealed an increasing appetite from employers to explore cadetships, internships and advanced apprenticeships. We should work together to take advantage of this opportunity and ask what the proper role of government, the education sector, industry and students and workers should be in strengthening connections between educators and employers for the benefit of us all.

If the university sector can find ways to work better with industry and other education providers to support young people and older workers to be job-ready and to up-skill and re-skill, this has potentially very large benefits for young and older workers, and their current and potential employers. It would also help the economy achieve sustainable and inclusive economic growth. It seems that industry is ready to work with educators, and the Government is looking for policies that will help.

I look forward to discussing these issues at CEDA’s State of the Nation conference, with Megan Lilly, Head of Education and Training at the Australian Industry Group, and Zahra Rezai, a graduate of Victoria University, who arrived in Australia almost a decade ago from Afghanistan and has successfully navigated the vocational and higher-education systems into the skilled labour market as an IT professional.

About the authors

Peter Dawkins

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Professor Peter Dawkins AO was Vice-Chancellor and President of Victoria University from 2011 until 2020. He is now an Emeritus Professor of Economics at the Mitchell Institute for Education and Health Policy at Victoria University.

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