Is tertiary education agile enough to keep pace with the changing nature of professional work?

August 4, 2016
Lauren Hood

The concept that graduates need to be life-long learners is hard to dispute given the rapid rate of change in the nature of work. But how will this learning occur and why are universities almost completely absent from this process after graduation? Is it time to introduce new flexible and agile learning pathways for professionals to tap into when needed to respond their changing work?

Can universities keep up?

This new era of post-graduate education could become an important new market for universities, but can current university bureaucracies and accreditation mechanisms react quickly enough in this rapidly changing environment to stay relevant? It would seem we need to develop more agile University-Industry sector accredited short courses.


The role of industry in helping to design and deliver these courses is critical to success.


The Australian Council of Learned Academies, and its excellent Securing Australia’s Future series, certainly considers that educational institutions, workplaces and individuals need to “respond flexibly to changing circumstances”[i].


This “adaptive capacity” is a key factor in generating the continuous innovation needed to maintain productivity growth and our international competitiveness.


Our workforce is changing faster than ever before

Businesses come and go. Around 500,000 businesses either enter or exit the Australian economy each year and about 10% of the workforce changes jobs each year[ii]. Slow structural change has been a feature of the Australian economy for more than a century with a shift in employment from agriculture to manufacturing and, more recently, to services. Agriculture and manufacturing employment in Australia each peaked at about 25% in the 1930s and 1960s, respectively. Now these industries collectively employ only about 15% of workers. [iii] Technology driven productivity advances meant that the land could be successfully worked and products produced with fewer and fewer people. Over 80% of Australians now work in the services sector: hospitality, health, education, transport, finance, management and so on. But just as machines and robots have replaced manual workers in factories, computers equipped with artificial intelligence are on the verge of replacing office workers, with one analysis suggesting that 40% of jobs have a high probability of being susceptible to computerisation or automation in the next few decades[iv].


Toby Walsh’s entertaining article ‘Could a robot do your job? Short answer: yes’[v] predicts that a whole host of professions are under threat: “professions that we used to think are quite safe -doctor, lawyer or accountant- will increasingly be automated”.  With IBM’s cognitive computer ‘Watson’ already making big impacts in finance, biology, healthcare and education[vi] Walsh’s prediction seems more than reasonable.


Graduates need to be flexible and innovative

Facing this tumultuous future world of work, new graduates are being advised to be flexible, creative and innovative in approaches to problem solving[vii]. This is quite ironic given the rather inflexible nature of our undergraduate degree programs—the bureaucracy required to introduce new courses means that they may be redundant before they start.


Innovative capacity will become an increasingly important competitive advantage for both individuals and whole businesses. But how can one be more innovative? Steven Johnson describes in his best seller ‘Where good ideas come from: the natural history of innovation (2010)’[viii], and a TedTalk on the same topic, that innovation is often a process of applying knowledge or technologies developed in one area to a new system. Innovative environments expose people to lots of ideas and allow them time to think about them. Put simply, innovators are those among us who are able to ‘connect the dots’.


Innovation is fostered when thinking people are exposed to ‘lots of dots’.


How can we better prepare graduates?

Much is made of the importance of interdisciplinary teaching and research in Universities however more is needed to make sure our graduates are prepared to respond to an ever-changing workforce.


Our own research environment serves as an illustrative case study to highlight the importance of interdisciplinary training. In the ARC Centre for Electromaterials Science (ACES) we are concerned with developing new materials for bionics, energy harvesting and storage, soft robotics and microfluidics. Increasingly, we are seeing that new discoveries and new PhD projects are occurring in the convergence of chemistry, materials science, nanotechnology, biology and mechatronics. New organic solar cells, for example, are motivated by plant photosynthesis and complex leaf microstructures. Understanding the chemistry and biology of these systems provides a blueprint to replicate, or at least mimic, these systems and their fabrication is being enabled by new components found in the world of nanotechnology and tools like 3D printers. But how do graduates trained in a mono-discipline cope with such divergent ideas?


We know that our PhD graduates need additional skills and so we offer in-house training in science communications, ethics and public engagement, entrepreneurship and business management.


Adding these extra skills takes time, on top of an already busy program of research and study; so much of this additional training we provide is in the form of short courses.


Short courses can boost skills for research students and professionals

The short course format is really the only feasible approach that suits the constraints of a PhD program, but it’s also applicable more generally.


Professionals are unlikely to leave employment and re-enter a traditional three or four year degree program. Instead, they will be looking to squeeze extra learning around their work, family and social lives. The growing need for re-skilling offers an opportunity for universities to fill this niche, but universities need to be more agile if they are to capitalise on these opportunities.


The use of training tools such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other on-line courses will undoubtedly add some flexibility to this ongoing demand for agile training options. In fact, Deakin’s Vice Chancellor, Prof. Jane den Hollander, has suggested that properly run MOOCs have the potential to disrupt the traditional three or four year degree program and employers may “prefer to deal directly with MOOCs, accessing rich analytical data to determine students who best match their skill requirements”[ix]. Should this occur, students may by-pass traditional university courses and gain graduate level employment by accumulating sufficient digital badges “collected globally and locally from educational institutions, from industry and from other activities”.


MOOCs are certainly popular. Recently ACES and ANFF (Materials Node) staff produced a MOOC on Bioprinting. It has been run three times, with more than 10,000 people registered to ‘attend’ from around the globe. Our most successful event attracted over 7,000 registrations, with the 26% from the United Kingdom, 9% from the United States, 8% from Australia with the attendance by age fairly consistent between the 26-35 and 56-65 plus brackets. While this MOOC was aimed at a community level of understanding, it demonstrates the power of the medium to connect with people.


MOOC Bioprinting: 3D printing body parts course
Month Registrations Highest Enrolment by country Highest Enrolment by age
Nov 2015 7,485 United Kingdom 18-25 years
March 2016 3,615 United Kingdom 18-25 and 26-35
July 2016 2,668 United Kingdom 26-35 and 56-65 plus


MOOCs provide an effective and efficient conduit for the introduction of rapidly emerging topics, such as 3D bioprinting. They can be turned around quickly with an agile production team. Given the specific nature of MOOCs they usually involve leaders in the field, which ensures they will be globally attractive. And producers beware—they must be engaging! It’s easy to turn a MOOC on, and easy to switch it off it you haven’t got the right topic, line-up or content.


As MOOCs become more formally recognised, hopefully they are not burdened by the archaic approval and accreditation processes strangling Universities.


In the meantime they can be coupled with more formal qualification courses: The Masters in Philosophy (Biofabrication), run by the University of Wollongong with ACES support, is providing a unique multidisciplinary training environment. It has already attracted individuals from varying backgrounds, including engineers, scientists and health care workers.


The rise of MOOCs can also be a threat to the business side of Australian education, as local students increasingly access off-shore education providers. Digitisation of education will see its globalisation- with winners and losers. If we don’t get it right, Australian tertiary education may suffer the same ‘off-shoring’ process seen in manufacturing, where the goods we consume are increasingly made overseas. Globalisation of manufacturing has been motivated by the productivity gains associated with mass production and the ability to access low-cost, low-skilled or semi-skilled labour. In response, manufacturers in high-labour-cost countries need to focus on high-value-added products (such as medical devices), customised solutions and increased collaboration with both customers and research providers. Australian universities should take note and concentrate on how to add value to online courses (such as intensive on-campus practical skills workshops); give students what they want (by asking them) as well as what they need; and collaborate with one another to deliver in a timely manner.


So where do we go from here?

The inertia in higher education and particularly in research training is scary especially given the breath-taking pace at which our technological society and new industries are moving. There is a need for a solid undergraduate education providing foundation knowledge in STE(A)M subjects. Undergraduates need to be given the skills needed to continue their training in the dynamic, agile commercial world we have created. These skills will be acquired through short courses, including intensive Master courses, and even supported by MOOCs, the flavour of which will continuously change. Universities have many delivery mode options up their sleeves to keep up with this change, the question is, can they act fast enough?


Written by Profs Gordon Wallace and Geoff Spinks.


[i] Bell, J, Frater, B, Butterfield, L, Cunningham, S, Dodgson, M, Fox, K, Spurling, T and Webster, E, “The role of science, research and technology in lifting Australian productivity. Report for the Australian Council of learned Academies”, 2014.

[ii] Tim Bradley “Australia’s shifting economy” in “Australia’s Future Workforce?” Committee for Economic Development of Australia, 2015.
[iii] Ellis Connolly and Christine Lewis, “Structural Change in the Australian Economy” Reserve Bank of Australia Bulletin, September 2010.
[iv] Hugh Durrant-White, Lachlan McCalman, Simon O’Callaghan, Alistair Reid and Daniel Steinberg “The impact of computerisation and automation on future employment” in “Australia’s Future Workforce?” Committee for Economic Development of Australia, 2015.
[v] Toby Walsh,
[vi] Belinda Tee and Jessica Xu “How next-gen computing is changing the way we work” in “Australia’s Future Workforce?” Committee for Economic Development of Australia, 2015.
[vii] Office of the Chief Scientist, “Australia’s STEM Workforce: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics” Australian Government, Canberra, 2016.
[viii] Steven Johnson, “Where good ideas come from: the natural history of innovation”,, 2010.
[ix] Jane den Hollander “A brave new world of higher education” in “Australia’s Future Workforce?” Committee for Economic Development of Australia, 2015.

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