Higher education and the “new model of learning”

By Amar Toor
Communications and Digital Officer, Directorate for Education and Skills

In an article published in 2017, University of Sydney economics professor Colm Harmon argues that the challenge facing today’s university students is one of “ambiguity”.

“They have more options on many fronts, but face a world that is closing in around them,” Harmon writes. “They have accepted that they will perhaps have more than one career, and that they may be training for a type of work that could be jilted out of existence at any point by the forces of globalisation and technology.”

Harmon, who is also Vice Provost at the University of Sydney, acknowledges that it’s difficult to predict how future graduates will navigate this new world, or how institutions of higher education will evolve in response to it. But in an interview on the sidelines of the OECD Forum, he shared his thoughts about what he envisions as a “new model of learning” – one in which institutions take “a long-term stake in their students’ futures”.

In your article, you write that “[t]oday’s university students face the challenge of ambiguity”, and that they “do not know what the return on their education will be”. In the face of this volatile landscape, what are the most important skills students need to acquire to succeed in life today?

It sounds easy to say, but adaptability is going to be critical. I’m not an economist who subscribes to the idea that AI is going to replace all the skilled jobs in the world; but what I’m pretty sure about is that technology will create a need for the students of today to re-tool, and perhaps re-skill at some point in life. They’re going to have to see lifelong learning in its full context, in a way that they never did before.

So graduation from university today is the start of a lifelong engagement with skills and training. That’s probably relatively new for this cohort, and something previous generations of students didn’t have to think about. They just graduated as “x”, and became “x” for life. That’s not going to happen, and universities and higher education providers are going to have to think of ways of responding to that.

Could you elaborate more on what you call “the new model of learning”? What could this look like, in practice? 

During the period on campus when you’re doing your primary degree, I think there will be a greater emphasis on ensuring that there’s a wide breadth of experience. So I think one model for a 21st-century bachelor’s degree is going to be anchored in primary training and expertise in a particular discipline, but with breadth around critical skills and other areas.

I think what’s likely is that students will graduate, essentially, with an account – they are sometimes called “passports” – that can be filled out as they go along. So we’re certainly expecting to see students coming in and out of the university, possibly on campus, possibly on line. And they’ll have these records that will travel with them and will be portable across jobs. And what will be really interesting down the line – this is a 10- to 15-year horizon – is seeing multi-country co-operation to recognise those kinds of credentials. They’ll be true passports, in an education sense, that will create mobility across nations as well as across sectors. That’s going to be the key to unlocking a successful future.

You can get a “stamp” that says I’ve come back to university and I’ve done critical thinking as part of that. You can create a bespoke programme for yourself that’s more closely matched to what you want to be and where you want to go.

Colm Harmon, professor at the School of Economics at the University of Sydney and Head of the School

When you talk about higher education, does that include more technical education as well? And should we be encouraging more students, particularly those who don’t have an aptitude or interest in academic studies, to pursue a more technical vocational education? 

Absolutely, yes. In my own view, one of the negative experiences is the distinction between what’s typically called higher education and what’s typically called further education. One is seen as considerably lesser quality than the other. That’s a real mistake; that’s led to the death of, for example, heavy engineering in countries like the UK, where the apprentice model has broken down, to a certain extent.

In my own adopted country of Australia, students can go to university in a demand-driven system, [get a] loan, and pay it back over their career. But they can’t do that if they’re going to do something in a technical skill space. And that’s certainly something the Australian government is working on fixing: levelling the funding environment in terms of student loans. It’s actually become cheaper, in terms of opportunity cost, to do a sort of mainstream degree in something you’re probably ill-suited for, rather than pursuing your technical profession. That has led to shortages.

A lot of it also has to do with inherent prejudices. In many cases, parents like to see their child going to the University of Sydney, but they don’t like their child going to a technical college; they see that as a negative. The critical thing in the labour market is to be successful in the training environment. Having a mediocre degree in something you’re not terribly inspired by is a bad outcome. And that’s something we have to face up to, as a society.

What role can education institutions and governments play in helping students navigate this complex future?

I think there’s a lot of important dialogue that needs to happen between universities and government. At the moment universities and government tend to have an antagonistic relationship. [The new model of learning] really only makes sense if it’s a truly mobile, international credential that allows people to be agile in every dimension, across geographies as well as sectors. That will require seeing greater value in the role that education plays than governments [now do], which is largely seeing higher education as a cost rather than an investment in society. I think that’s probably where the nature of the relationship needs to shift.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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