UNIVERSITIES QUALIFY FOR A HIGH DISTINCTION, MR WILLOX
The Ai Group chief misreads the results of an employer survey
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