The Ai Group chief mis­reads the re­sults of an em­ployer sur­vey

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER - PETER VAN ONSELEN Peter van Onselen is a pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics at the Univer­sity of West­ern Aus­tralia.

So 84 per cent of busi­nesses sur­veyed by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s lat­est Em­ployer Satisfaction Sur­vey say they are sat­is­fied with the skills and at­tributes of Aus­tralian univer­sity grad­u­ates they hire, yet the head of Ai Group, Innes Willox, claims our ter­tiary sec­tor is fail­ing busi­ness.

That was the head­line on Mon­day’s front-page splash in The Aus­tralian: “Unis fail­ing to de­liver for busi­ness”. Don’t get me wrong, as a head­line it cer­tainly did its job, catch­ing my at­ten­tion. But if Willox se­ri­ously thinks the re­sults of the sur­vey re­flect the in­flated rhetoric of such crit­i­cisms, per­haps he needs fur­ther study to brush up on his qual­i­ta­tive and quan­ti­ta­tive anal­y­sis skills.

While anti-in­tel­lec­tual univer­sity bash­ing might be in vogue — and again don’t get me wrong, shortly I’ll spell out some of the short­com­ings in the sec­tor — to de­clare uni­ver­si­ties as “fail­ing busi­ness” when 84 per cent of busi­nesses are sat­is­fied with grad­u­ates they hire is a non­sense. At my univer­sity, 80 per cent and above is a high distinc­tion score.

When I turned in­side the pa­per to use the ta­bles to look up the worst-per­form­ing Aus­tralian univer­sity ac­cord­ing to over­all satisfaction — the Univer­sity of South­ern Queens­land — it had a 78.4 per cent satisfaction rat­ing, 1.6 per cent short of a high distinc­tion. That’s more im­pres­sive than one might ex­pect for the sup­posed lag­gard. The top per­former, James Cook Univer­sity, had over­all satisfaction of 90.6 per cent.

Frankly, aware as I am of some of the in­ad­e­qua­cies in the sys­tem, I’m sur­prised the re­sults were so strong, even if the Ai Group head was keen to put a neg­a­tive spin on the sur­vey. It re­minded me of the con­stant cul­ture-war bash­ing of the ABC and claims that the com­mu­nity is let down by its per­for­mance, even though sur­veys con­sis­tently high­light trust in the pub­lic broad­caster is sky-high. Polem­i­cal com­men­ta­tors are rarely put off by facts.

Even if busi­ness were dis­sat­is­fied with the grad­u­ates it hires (which it’s not, re­mem­ber that 84 per cent fig­ure), the real ques­tion we should be ask­ing is whether fewer stu­dents should be study­ing at univer­sity, and per­haps us­ing TAFE in­stead. If the Ai Group wants to make a valu­able con­tri­bu­tion to the de­bate over job-ready train­ing, it should tar­get its own mem­bers.

Busi­nesses aren’t of­fer­ing cadet­ships and in­ter­nal path­ways for ca­reers in the way they once did. They in­stead ex­pect the tax­pay­er­sub­sidised higher ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor to do the heavy lift­ing, af­ter which Willox has the temer­ity to com­plain that uni­ver­si­ties aren’t do­ing their jobs well enough when it comes to equip­ping grad­u­ates for a ca­reer in busi­ness.

Should that even be the role of higher ed­u­ca­tion? Surely go­ing to uni is about more than sim­ply be­ing job-ready or tick­ing boxes that busi­nesses want ticked be­fore hir­ing new staff. Not that get­ting philo­soph­i­cal about the role of ed­u­ca­tion in a demo­cratic polity when de­bat­ing an in­dus­try head is likely to get me very far.

The finer de­tails of the sur­vey re­vealed that busi­ness ques­tions the value of par­tic­u­lar qual­i­fi­ca­tions, in­clud­ing “man­age­ment and com­merce” and “so­ci­ety and cul­ture”. Let’s deal with the sec­ond of these first; it’s the eas­ier cri­tique to dis­miss. Ask­ing busi­ness lead­ers what they think about the value of cre­ative de­grees to their pro­fes­sion is about as ir­rel­e­vant as ask­ing an en­gi­neer for their take on 20th-cen­tury West­ern phi­los­o­phy. Are you shocked busi­nesses don’t think de­grees in so­ci­ety and cul­ture are rel­e­vant to what they do? As for the man­age­ment and com­merce de­grees that busi­ness ap­par­ently does not think are up to scratch, why then do they dis­pro­por­tion­ately hire peo­ple with such qual­i­fi­ca­tions? In­deed, why do so many busi­nesses en­cour­age staff to un­der­take fur­ther study in these ar­eas, even pay­ing for them to do so and giv­ing them time off work?

I’m sure Willox found it use­ful to top up his arts de­gree with grad­u­ate stud­ies in busi­ness man- age­ment, es­pe­cially when trans­fer­ring from his ca­reer as a jour­nal­ist cum po­lit­i­cal staffer to the in­dus­try job he now holds.

Uni­ver­si­ties are as much about re­search as they are about teach­ing, some­thing many peo­ple ei­ther don’t know or for­get. Aca­demics are ex­pected, ac­cord­ing to their work­load for­mu­las, to spend roughly half their time re­search­ing and the other half teach­ing. Aside from the lack of aware­ness out­side the sec­tor about the im­por­tance of re­search (most tech­no­log­i­cal and sci­en­tific break­throughs are achieved in uni­ver­si­ties; crit­i­cally ac­claimed nar­ra­tives of his­tory and forewarning on so­cial, eco­nomic and en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges pre­dom­i­nantly come from aca­demics), within uni­ver­si­ties teach­ing prow­ess isn’t ad­e­quately re­warded.

Pro­fes­sor­ships are handed out far more fre­quently for qual­ity re­search than qual­ity teach­ing. There is a dis­con­nect be­tween com­mu­nity ex­pec­ta­tions that uni­ver­si­ties will pick up where high school leaves off and the sim­ple fact that a PhD is a qual­i­fi­ca­tion that sig­nals an aca­demic can re­search but not nec­es­sar­ily teach.

Politi­cians are re­spon­si­ble for the short­com­ings in the sec­tor, not aca­demics — who are paid well be­low pri­vate sec­tor mar­ket rates, yet get la­belled as “elites” by ac­tual elites (even within the me­dia) earn­ing high six-fig­ure salaries and liv­ing in sub­urbs to match.

Kevin Rudd’s gov­ern­ment, in a bid to virtue-sig­nal that it was mak­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion “more ac­ces­si­ble”, de­cided to dra­goon as many peo­ple through the sys­tem as pos­si­ble. The propo­si­tion was built on a fal­lacy, given Aus­tralia has one of the most eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble ter­tiary sec­tors in the world, with a de­ferred pay­ments scheme (HECS) Bob Hawke in­tro­duced, en­sur­ing so­cioe­co­nomic dis­ad­van­tage (to the ex­tent pos­si­ble) doesn’t get in the way of en­ter­ing the best uni­ver­si­ties and as­pir­ing to the best de­grees.

All La­bor man­aged to do was over­crowd uni­ver­si­ties with big­ger classes and more stu­dents, many of whom would have been bet­ter off study­ing for more vo­ca­tional qual­i­fi­ca­tions. And it wasn’t the dis­ad­van­taged who pre­dom­i­nantly took ad­van­tage of La­bor’s largesse — more chil­dren from mid­dle and up­per-in­come fam­i­lies took the op­por­tu­nity to sign up for un­capped cour­ses with lower en­try stan­dards.

Lib­er­als since the Howard years have un­der­funded uni­ver­si­ties and for a time our in­sti­tu­tions slipped in world rank­ings. The fi­nan­cial short­fall has been made up by open­ing up higher ed­u­ca­tion to full fee-pay­ing over­seas stu­dents, and we’ve seen some of the prob­lems this cre­ates: Chi­nese in­flu­ence in the sec­tor, in­ad­e­quate lan­guage pro­fi­ciency among some stu­dents who gain ad­mis­sion, and the com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of a sec­tor that re­ally shouldn’t be com­mod­i­fied in that way.

But at least both ma­jor par­ties are do­ing what they be­lieve is in the best in­ter­ests of the sec­tor, rightly or oth­er­wise. This is why Lib­eral Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Si­mon Birm­ing­ham fired back at Willox’s re­marks, de­fend­ing the gov­ern­ment’s ef­forts to link fund­ing to per­for­mance out­comes.

The big­gest dis­con­nect in the higher ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor is be­tween the re­ward aca­demics get for re­search and com­mu­nity ex­pec­ta­tions that teach­ing is what uni­ver­si­ties should be fo­cused on. In fact, the best re­searchers buy them­selves out of teach­ing, of­ten hand­ing the face time with stu­dents to ses­sional staff. Soughtafter higher global rank­ings are dic­tated by re­search out­comes, not the teach­ing out­comes the politi­cians tell us are so im­por­tant. Fix­ing this needs to be the fo­cus.

That said, re­search 101 says the data should dic­tate your find­ings. If 84 per cent of busi­nesses are sat­is­fied with the grad­u­ates the sys­tem is churn­ing out, I’m not sure the Ai Group should be giv­ing the sec­tor an F.

Politi­cians are re­spon­si­ble for the short­com­ings in the higher ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor, not aca­demics — who are paid well be­low pri­vate sec­tor mar­ket rates

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