‘Job-Ready Graduates’ and ‘21st Century Skills’ in a COVID-19 Recession: Politics ‘Bounces-Back’!

Authors: Peter Kelly & James Goring

RMIT University started its life as the Working Men’s College on 7 June 1887.

It adopted the motto “Perita manus, mens exculta” – a skilled hand, a cultivated mind – which continues to be used by the University today.

The Present – An Overhaul of Australian Tertiary Education for the ‘Jobs of the Future’

On 19th June 2020, the Australian Conservative Coalition Federal Government Education minister, Dan Tehan, announced a proposed series of changes to the ways in which the Federal Government funds Australia’s Universities (the proposed package needs to be approved by both Houses of Australia’s parliament before enactment). The so-called Jobs Ready Graduates Package claims that: 

The changes aim to deliver more job-ready graduates in the disciplines and regions where they are needed most and help drive the nation’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The innovative funding reforms contained in the package will ensure a world-class, sustainable higher education system that delivers for both students and employers. A strong, resilient and responsive higher education sector is also key to supporting students who face educational disadvantage through expanding opportunities for regional, rural and remote students. This package will also support university-industry collaboration in the national interest, create a more responsive qualifications framework, foster the integrity of the higher education system, and provide the building blocks for national economic growth.

The Guardian Australia reported on the proposed changes, and noted transcripts from the Minister’s announcement at the National Press Club:

Tehan promises an additional 39,000 university places by 2023 and 100,000 places by 2030, and that commonwealth grants will maintain their real value by being indexed to inflation.

Tehan says the student contribution for law and commerce units will increase by 28% and for the humanities by 113%.

The student contribution for a three-year humanities degree would jump from up to $20,400 to $43,500; while law and commerce degrees could increase from $34,000 to $43,500.

The student contribution will be reduced:

By 62% for those studying agriculture and maths – giving savings of up to $18,000 across the life of a degree.

By 46% for those studying teaching, nursing, clinical psychology, English and languages, savings of up to $9,300.

By 20% for those studying science, health, architecture, environmental science, IT and engineering, or savings of up to $6,900.

Minister Tehan appeared on ABC News, outlining the reforms in the context of COVID-19 and the current, and deepening, recession.

“We are facing the biggest employment challenge since the Great Depression,”

“And the biggest impact will be felt by young Australians. They are relying on us to give them the opportunity to succeed in the jobs of the future.”

While the reform reduces overall government contribution to degrees from 58% to 52%, Tehan emphasised that 60% of future students will “see a reduction or no change in their student contribution”.

“Students will have a choice,”

“Their degree will be cheaper if they choose to study in areas where there is expected growth in job opportunities.”

We could take up a number of concerns in this blog post. We could, from the outset, argue for the ways in which the policy profoundly discriminates against (future) social sciences and humanities students, disciplines, and academics. We could take issue with the logic of the policy itself: that the ‘solution’ merely ‘repurposes’ funds in the tertiary sector; that there is an effective overall reduction in government funding for teaching and learning in higher education from 58% to 52%; that students are (dis)incentivised to ‘mortgage’ their ‘futures’ in line with the jobs that are imagined as being of ‘value’ at the convergence of the 4th Industrial Revolution and the 6th mass extinction (we have done some of this work prior to the announcement of the Package, including: Part One, and Part Two).

However, what we want to do here is illustrate what the debate provoked by the announcement of the Package says about such things as ‘skills’, ‘job-readiness’, ‘choice’, ‘graduate employability’, and, importantly, what is the ‘purpose’ of a ‘higher education’.

And, at the end, we want illustrate how the proposed Package is one of the first indications of the ways in which young people will carry the burdens of a COVID-19 crisis, recession, and the budgetary and policy responses to these crises.

Young People and Higher Education – opportunity, (dis)incentive, or abandon study

In an article published by ABC News shortly after the announcement – and in ways that were separated from the analysis of what the Package was attempting to do, and how it would do it –  a number of young people voiced their opinions about how these changes would affect their study, or interest in studying.

Some of those who submitted responses claimed that they are re-thinking their pathways and trajectories in light of the proposed reforms.

Cathi S: “I was hoping to go to university as a mature-aged student next year to study sociology and political science. I would have thought that this study would have been classified differently, as job prospects in the public sector are very good. As a person with a disability, who was previously a nurse, these changes are highly discriminatory if you’re not highly STEM educated at school, or if you have a disability.”

Lilly M: “After working for a few years, I was planning to go to university to either study media and communications or look into a bachelor of arts in creative writing … I will now definitely not be attending uni, as it terrifies me to have that much debt to work off.”

On the other hand, some young people welcomed the changes, and the ‘signals’ they sent which ‘recognised’ that some programs had greater labour market relevance.

Kelsie M: “As a young woman wanting to enter a career in STEM, it’s really important for me and many other young women across the country that the pathway is as accessible as possible. Along with that, living in a remote town will impact my decision to study or not due to the lack of facilities nearby, so it’s important that I consider the most financially viable option.”

And some suggested that a university ‘education’ should be a ‘vocational’ pipeline to the labour market.

Barry R: “About time degrees were priced according to their worth. Useless fluff degrees provide almost nil benefit to the economy. [They] create a huge HECS debt which will never be paid back. Targeted reductions in fees where there is the most need, and this should include TAFE, are the smart way to go.”

Soft skills, soft target: Dan Tehan’s university reforms look short-sighted

“If we are to go to the evidence regarding the utility of arts-based education in our universities, we see very high levels of employability with our graduates”

“In fact, they are on par with those graduates coming from STEM. We also see very high levels of recognition that the capabilities and skills that students do receive in humanities and social science degrees are precisely the skills that employers are looking for into the future. So-called soft skills, but skills which are resistant to automation and skills which are resistant to economic downturn. We have seen this evidence time and time again … the government’s own ‘skills for the future’ paper detailed a range of skills which are all at the heart of humanities and social science degrees” (Professor Sharon Pickering, Dean, Faculty of Arts, Monash University)

There has been significant political and social commentary on the proposed Package. Many have made the appeal to the current and emerging 21st century, ‘enterprise skills’, ‘soft skills’ and ‘social’ and ‘emotional skills’ agenda as a justification for the importance of arts, humanities and social science degrees in delivering on what are imagined as vital ‘employability skills’. 

21st Century Skills: What are they?

The UNEVOC Centre at RMIT frames much of what we want to do through a critical engagement with this concept of 21st century skills. Over the past four decades there has been significant and increasing attention on the importance of so-called soft, social-emotional, enterprise, ‘human-centred’ skills and capabilities such as creativity, critical thinking, resilience, adaptability, and curiosity. In the sense of what this concept means for education and training when these capabilities are claimed to be best able to deal with the challenges of the 4th Industrial Revolution including precarious, automated labour markets. And for the problem of the sustainability of human and non human life on the planet. 

In my PhD research (James), I have been mapping some of the ways in which the skills agenda has played out, and gained authority, in Australian education systems from the time of the Hobart Declaration on Schooling (1989) through to the Alice Springs Declaration (Mparntwe) Education Declaration (2019). A small number of powerful, global and national stakeholders have, over the past 40 or years, invested heavily in the promises of particular models for a ‘skills’ and ‘futures’ agenda. Across many OECD economies and education systems, assemblages such as 21st century skills (World Economic Forum), and transformative competencies (OECD), have been mobilised as ways of framing the kinds of human-capital that nations and populations and individuals need to ‘develop’ in order to thrive in futures imagined as uncertain and risky.

Image credit

In a 2018 report that canvases a number of challenges for Australian VET systems Anne Jones, from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at The University of Melbourne, outlines both the context of profound changes in labour markets, especially for young people, and the sorts of capabilities young workers need to develop in order to be employable in these labour markets:

‘We do not know how work and employment opportunities will change in the near future. Predictions range from “forecasts that nearly half of jobs in advanced economies may be automated out of existence” to confidence that high-level vocational skills will be more important than ever in the digital world…What we do know is that people will need educational breadth as well as occupational depth to adapt and thrive as industries and society change.

Anne Jones (2018) p.2

‘Twenty-first century capabilities…represent the knowledge, skills, attitudes and dispositions individuals must acquire to adapt to complex and unknown circumstances…For example, European Union countries have identified the capabilities they consider necessary to remain globally competitive and to best prepare individuals for lifelong employment. These comprise high-level technical skills, core skills and a range of capabilities referred to in the EU as transverse capabilities – “the ability to think critically, take initiative, problem solve and work collaboratively will prepare individuals for today’s varied and unpredictable career paths…particularly entrepreneurial skills” (European Commission, 2012)…’

Anne Jones (2018) p.3

The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), in a submission to a summit of national vocational education stakeholders in 2013, outlined its understanding of 21st century skills, and why they should be a priority for vocational education:

‘While defined sets of skills and knowledge can be developed for particular areas of work and study at particular points in time, rapid changes in technology and social and economic structures, including those related to globalisation, may mean that specific skills and knowledge learned during education and training are quickly outdated in the real world.

…employers, in particular, have emphasised “the need for employees who can work collaboratively in teams, use technology effectively and create new solutions to problems” and highlights the work of the international collaboration known as the Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATC21S).

This skills and capabilities agenda is itself problematic in that it mostly focuses on the ‘supply’ side of the jobs market – on the ‘skills and the capabilities’ that an individual brings, or doesn’t bring, to an engagement with work. This focus says little about work, about labour market opportunities in different places, about work practices, labour relations, power, privilege and marginalisation in the world of work. This is a theme we explore in series of posts on Global Grammars Of Enterprise in the COVID-19 Crisis (Parts 1, 2 and 3).

And it privileges what employers want, what businesses want, when employers and businesses should be seen as just one of many stakeholders in debates and discussions about skills and capabilities, about life and work, and about the roles that education and training have in developing those capabilities, about preparing young people for ‘becoming’…somebody.

What we can see here is the ample research and advice that governments themselves have been party to producing, and which is readily available to be used in the policy development processes.

Research, debate, discussion can, as many have done, be used to respond to, reject, and point out the shortcomings of the Package. 

So, what is going on in the conservative Liberal-National Party coalition policy discussion processes at this time that results in the announcement of something like the Package?

(Higher) Education, Job Ready Skills, and the Road Out of a COVID Recession: What’s Going On? 

Throughout this series of posts, and in the planning of a research agenda framed by the interests that we have clearly outlined, we have stressed that COVID-19 entered a world of conflict, division, inequalities, inequities and crises. Entered a world in which party politics in different contexts, at the national and state level, must be distinguished from, even though it is closely related to, policy development processes.

Something might look like good politics, but be bad policy. Good policy can look like bad politics.

The Age/Sydney Morning Herald’s economics editor Ross Gittins argues in a blog post titled, ‘Morrison moves the deck chairs on the hulk of our universities’ that:

Unis will become even more of a sausage factory – which will be really great for the nation’s investment in “human capital”.

My guess is that the changes to the structure of tuition fees – with a hodgepodge of big cuts, small cuts, small increases, big increases and no changes – are intended to give the appearance of doing something to increase employment, to gratify the parliamentary Liberal Party’s antipathy towards the universities (hotbeds of leftie activists who think Black Lives Matter and have kids who wag school because the silly-billies are worried about climate change) and to divert attention from the way the unis have been short-changed.

With the fee for humanities degrees up by a mere 113 per cent, it’s quite a diversion. I’ll be diverted only to the extent of quoting from a speech by a Business Council official in 2016: business needed the skills of “critical thinking, synthesis, judgment and an understanding of ethical constructs”. The humanities produced people who can “ask the right questions, think for themselves, explain what they think, and turn those ideas into actions”.

Ah, maybe that’s what the backbench doesn’t fancy.

And possibly, just possibly, this is the start of Scott Morrsion’s much vaunted, promised, ‘bounce-back’. At least in the field of politics, and in terms of playing to a ‘base’. And, as the Package signals, this is a ‘bounce-back’ in which some (young people) will ‘pay’ a higher price than others.


By James Goring

I am a Research Fellow in the School of Education at Deakin University, and the UNESCO UNEVOC Centre in the School of Education at RMIT University

2 replies on “‘Job-Ready Graduates’ and ‘21st Century Skills’ in a COVID-19 Recession: Politics ‘Bounces-Back’!”

[…] The WEF’s The Future of Jobs (WEF 2018) report emphasises that we are experiencing a shift in the tasks performed by humans, those performed by machines and algorithms, and the impact that these changes will have on global labour markets. The Australian Industry Group echoes these ideas, and reports that 75% of the fastest growing occupations in Australia will require STEM related skills while Victoria’s Department of Education and Training, in its STEM in the Education State (2016) notes that Victoria’s priority sectors will require up to 400,000 STEM related jobs by 2025. This emphasis on a future characterised by digital disruption, and a focus on producing young people with the STEM skills required to navigate this future, have already been amplified in the recently proposed overhaul of Australian tertiary education for the ‘jobs of the future’ (we have begun to describe this in a previous post, ‘Job Ready Graduates and 21st Century Skills’). […]


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