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Employability, entrepreneurship and the future of Higher Education

As part of the lead up to the opening of Flinders Connect next month, I’ve been thinking a lot more about the concept of ‘students as customers’, and the role that Universities (and our student services team one part of that greater whole) are expected to play in this relationship. In a recent staff forum I heard our Vice Chancellor muse that students may be customers, but they are not customers simply buying a commodity – they are more like adventurers signing up for a trek through the Himalayas, with an expectation that they will need to put in significant effort as part of the deal to get to their goal.

There must also, however, be the expectation from these customers that at the end of that trek there is some sort of payoff – most likely in the form of gainful employment – and yet we see plenty of stories like this one highlighting graduate employability being at its lowest level in Australia in over twenty years. We see the terms ‘job ready’ and ’employability’ skills’ bandied about, and yet we also see the counterpoint that Universities should absolutely not attempt to ‘educate to suit employers‘. So what then do we do to ensure that our students are getting the value they expect from their education?

What really jolted my thinking on this topic was reading this article, which to summarise, references a research project by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business that states that

…simply being in an open network instead of a closed one is the best predictor of career success.

The article argues that being part of a large, open network, has a range of flow-on effects for the individual, such as having personal beliefs and ideals challenged, leading to a more holistic perspective on the world, and being more likely to have higher levels of creativity due to frequent exposure to unexpected connections between seemingly disparate fields. The article quoted Steve Jobs as saying:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.

To me, this ability to see connections that others can’t – to Join the Dots – is one of the cornerstones of an entrepreneurial mindset, which coincidentally enough was a hot topic for me this week as I participated in a panel reviewing the South Australian senior secondary information technology curriculum. Everybody wanted students to be ‘entrepreneurial’, but what exactly that meant and how to get there were somewhat more challenging questions. It was evident coming away from that session that the desire for entrepreneurship in our students is not just a Higher Education thing.

But I digress.

The underpinning research article from Booth went into more detail about people who are members of large, open networks, describing them as ‘brokers’ of relationships, and going in to some detail about the power they wield. With this in mind, I’ve been pondering if this is one aspect that should become more of a focus for Higher Education, as to date I’ve seen no evidence of any conscious, concerted, structured effort to get students to develop into the role of a ‘network broker’ as described above.

Now this isn’t to say that Universities (including the one I work for) don’t make an effort to get students to develop their networks – quite the contrary. But what I have seen is far more geared towards becoming part of ‘closed’ networks – groups of ‘like minded’ individuals getting together around a particular interest or discipline. Indeed, studies like this one indicate that this is exactly what employers want – ‘like minded’ individuals who will provide a good ‘cultural fit’ into the organisation.

But is custom building students for the needs of today’s employers necessarily the right thing to do for students who will have forty year careers ahead of them during which some pundits are predicting almost half of the current jobs simply won’t exist within twenty years – or at the half-time marker of the careers of today’s graduates.

Even looking beyond figures like these, I personally can’t help but wonder if there is an inherent schism between what the vast majority of today’s employers (who by their very nature are not in the slightest bit entrepreneurial) want, and what many commentators believe students will need in the longer term, namely the spirit of entrepreneurship.

If this is the case, then it leaves all education providers in a tricky spot during this ‘inflexion’ in the workforce (as PWC put it in their Smart Move paper) – do we focus on creating students who are ‘job ready’ for today, or who are ‘entrepreneurially spirited’ for the world which is likely to be on their doorstep within the next twenty years?

If we choose the latter, then we face an altogether new set of challenges. As this article puts it, to foster this spirit of innovation within their students, Universities must

…move away from measuring academic success according to rigid marking criteria. They should focus on learning through experience and the cycle of failure inherent in creative endeavours.

This sounds easy if you say it quickly enough, but in reality this would require, from what I’ve seen, a massive shift on several fronts, probably starting with the AQF and working backwards from there. This of course assumes that formal University qualifications retain their value throughout this period, rather than ending up as second-class qualifications for those who weren’t good enough to use their entrepreneurial and domain talents to create their own startup…

That said, if the research discussed in the Booth study is accurate, and being connected to a large, open network is genuinely a driver for long-term success (acknowledging the whole correlation not necessarily implying causation thing), then perhaps this is the next aspirational goal for Higher Education – ensuring that students not only leave as knowledgeable, ‘well rounded’ people, but that they are also well on their way to being ‘network brokers’.

As a child, I can remember my dear old Mum telling me ‘it’s not what you know, its who you know’. The landscape of education may have shifted a lot since then, but her words ring true to me now more than ever. The question is what action to take because of it for the next generation.