Education policy in Australia has many emerging issues it must contend with, not least of which is the imminent collision between an ageing population and rapidly changing workplaces driven by technological advancement. While there is no sure trajectory as to how all of this will play out over the coming decades, it is predicted that people will live longer lives, and some may have careers that span 50-60 years.
To put this in context, if a 20-year-old today has a 50 per cent chance of living to be 100, as has been predicted, then it goes without saying that the ongoing upgrading and renewal of skills and education will be an essential factor in supporting individuals to navigate complex career structures, and to enrich lives.
As a new report from Deloitte points out, alternatives that support and encourage lifelong learning should be integrated into an overall post-secondary policy architecture.
Although there is much attention devoted to the education and training needs of millennials, little is known about the motivations, aspirations and preferences of the current workforce. Once we’ve learned more about these needs, we will be better placed to engineer an education sector that is responsive and timely to both the needs of individuals and industry more generally.
Shifting to a ‘lifelong learning’ attitude
To explore attitudes to lifelong learning, Deloitte surveyed nearly 4,000 Australian workers – nationally representative across age groups, genders and locations – in a report titled ‘Higher education for a changing world: ensuring the 100-year life is a better life’.
What they found was more than half of all respondents – 55 per cent – were amenable to further study and were either currently engaged in it, had recently completed it or would contemplate it in the near future.
Importantly, Deloitte found further study is often a virtuous circle: those who engage in it are more predisposed to do more of it in the future. For example, of the 37 per cent who said they were planning to undertake study in the next three years, more than two thirds had only recently completed a course of study and nearly 60 per cent were currently studying. Such results surely point to a deep appetite within the Australian workforce to build on existing skills and develop new ones – a finding the business sector should be rightfully pleased with.
Staying relevant as technology advances
Unsurprisingly, a key factor driving this appetite for learning is a widespread recognition of the threat to jobs due to automation and new technologies, with only 12 per cent of respondents indicating they believed their job would not change in the next 10 years. The vast majority recognised that unpredictability and uncertainty were inevitable.
This volatility could also be a contributing factor to another, somewhat surprising, finding – that 36 per cent of respondents were willing to bear the full cost of their future study and a further 30 per cent were willing to cover part of the cost with the rest paid for either by government or employers.
While the issue of who bears the cost of education has been contentious in recent years, rising enrolments with non-subsidised private providers, and in full-fee postgraduate programs suggests there is a willingness amongst some individuals to invest their own money if there are perceived long-term benefits.
Education and training to suit the individual
Deloitte’s report also points to a large amount of activity in the non-accredited education and training space, which is largely hidden in plain sight. Indeed, just under one third of respondents indicated they were currently engaged in a course of study that was not recognised under the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) and an even larger share – 38 per cent – indicated they would undertake non-AQF training in the future.
This vast amount of activity is not captured in official statistics, but it suggests the workforce is more educated and more agile than we would otherwise think.
With the current review of the AQF due to report next year, this finding is good news for the growing chorus of voices calling for a more flexible and adaptable education and training system that is able to incorporate and acknowledge micro-credentials within its parameter.
Certainly, there are few who would argue we don’t need viable alternatives to the degree, diploma and certificate structure that has defined our education sector for several decades.
We need alternatives. One suggestion gaining traction is higher apprenticeships, which combine paid employment with academic and technical training. Evidence from the UK as well as recent small-scale pilots in Australia referenced in the Deloitte report suggest there are benefits to both students and employers.
Employers have a role to play
Employers need to work more closely with education providers in the design and delivery of education and training to meet the unique needs of their industries.
But at its simplest, the huge demand for non-AQF training points to a largely untapped demand for small, bite-sized, flexible learning alternatives, which allow individuals to balance work, study and life commitments and which, ideally, are aligned with current industry requirements.
The challenge for policymakers is to determine how to recognise stackable, micro-credentials that can be built, piece by piece, to create bespoke qualifications that suit the varying need of individuals. That alone would go a long way to creating a learning-for-life culture that underpins 50-60 year careers.