Education systems are preparing students for forms of work that are disappearing. Without urgent action, Australia risks being left behind as competitor nations increase their productivity and prepare their citizens better for the future world of work.
“We focus on solving existing problems rather than those that are emerging all around us.” 1
The Fourth Industrial Revolution – that collision of related technologies such as automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning, Blockchain, the Internet of Things, brain enhancement, additive manufacturing, biotechnology, synthetic biology and data analysis – will fundamentally change the nature of jobs. Yes there is more to education than preparing people for work, but unless people are prepared for work we will lose the prosperity that funds the education system to begin with.
There is no escaping from this and purposeful leadership is required. Forty per cent of current Australian jobs have a moderate-to-high likelihood of disappearing in the next 10 to 15 years. Similar predictions are made for other developed countries.
In Australia, jobs in agriculture and manufacturing are decreasing and jobs in the knowledge and service industries are increasing. Collectively, our most valuable resource will be what is in our heads and hands, rather than what is in the ground.
The good news is that we are waking up to the problem. The bad news is that we don't seem to know what to do about it. Those nations which do figure it out will move ahead.
Fundamentally, our education system needs to place greater focus on skills and capabilities, and correspondingly reduce the ‘knowledge content’ of the typical syllabus.
Young people need new and different skill sets to thrive in technology-rich, globalised, competitive job markets.2 (It’s not just young people, but let’s start there.)
Lists of 21st Century skills have been produced by the OECD, the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority, the World Economic Forum, education research institutes and many others. Typically the lists of social and cognitive skills required to be ‘ready for the non-routine’ include:
But capabilities cannot be learned in the abstract. They must be learned in the context of organised, relevant knowledge. We need to arrange knowledge content around the skills to be acquired, rather than just tacking on skills components to an already full syllabus. An example is the New York Academy of Sciences’ framework for changing the school curriculum to reflect the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) knowledge needed in an information society (the STEM Education Framework)3.
The new world of work requires more than heightened STEM literacies, however. It needs reflective people who can reason ethically and consider the implications of the extraordinary technologies that are coming. A reconciliation of the Humanities and Sciences – separated for two centuries – will be required.
Australia may not be travelling particularly well.
In the main international standardised testing of school students – the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – Australian students’ performance declined in reading and scientific literacy between 2006 and 2015. Mathematical literacy declined between 2012 and 2015.
Similar patterns are evident in other international assessments, such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS)4.
Around 35 percent of Australian 15-year olds show low proficiency in problem solving, 27 percent demonstrate low proficiency in digital literacy and 29 percent demonstrate low proficiency in financial literacy5.
In higher education, our universities perform well in world rankings but the earnings advantage of Australian graduates is declining, as is the graduate employment rate.
It is time to act.
We need first to redesign the education system to reduce divisions between its component parts and allow us to plan it as a whole. The separation of federal and state responsibilities is a recipe for politics and game-playing. What is at stake is too important for this.
A first principles reform process, involving government but not driven by it, should be convened by industry, the professions, trade unions, educational institutions and student bodies, to imagine a joined up system which teaches and assesses what needs to be taught and assessed.
We must bridge the academic-vocational divide better and change the cultural attitudes that accompany it. Practical ways to achieve this include experimenting with European-style polytechnic institutions, which marry high level knowledge with mastery of technical skills, and degree apprenticeships which are now taking off in the United Kingdom6.
Assessment is a crucial issue. Although the recent Australian Curriculum does have a focus on capabilities, there is no consistent national approach to assessing and reporting students’ acquisition of them. At the least, we need to measure capabilities alongside NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) and the ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank).
The Australian Qualifications Framework (the AQF) needs re-visiting. For example, the undergraduate bachelor degree may have an 800 year history, but is it fit for purpose now? We see micro-credentialling taking off, where short courses are taken online or in person and then assembled into portfolios which are recognised by some academic institutions and employers. There is plenty of room for experimentation here.
During this process we need some restraint amongst the public and the media. Even if everyone actually were an expert on education (which they’re not), educating for the future is different. Outrage is not a substitute for evidence.
But remember …
At the end of the day, a good society is one where people are fulfilled, not just prosperous. Higher levels of education do not of themselves bring greater job satisfaction; possibly the reverse is the case.7 As Rutger Bregman put it recently: “I believe in a future where the point of education is not to prepare you for another useless job, but for a life well lived”.8
As universities adapt to new policies that encourage better academic research engagement and impact, how can they avoid any unintended consequences?