Are universities leading the way to build a higher education workforce for the future? Australia in focus

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Are universities leading the way to build a higher education workforce for the future? Australia in focus

By Winnie Eley
Deputy Vice Chancellor, International and Advancement
The University of Newcastle, Australia

“Keeping up with workforce shifts isn’t easy, particularly for big, traditional companies. The problem is that they’re trapped by  their own history. So many times I see big companies try to move more nimbly, but their stumbling blocks are their own culture and middle managers who are not fully committed to multiple work models and see them as a threat to their span of control.” (Jeffrey Joerres in Globalisation, Robots, and the Future of Work, Harvard Business Review, page 75–79, October 2016)

Organisational culture and middle management have long been hailed as the roadblocks to any evolving agile and nimble workforce. No surprises there, irrespective of how misunderstood middle management can be, and at times, is in organisations. However, this issue is not within the scope of this article.

One then continues on and asks: are universities, communities of scholars, institutions which hold the remit and mandate to create, disseminate and preserve knowledge, leading the way to build a higher education workforce for the future? Studies in this topic are not only scant but in fact such question is very difficult to answer. Majority of the research tends   to address the issue on how universities educate workforce of the future for the wider society. In An Avalanche is Coming by Barber et al (2013), there is a strong message to call upon “leaders of universities and those who shape and regulate education” to “ponder anew” because the models which served the second half of the 20th Century are broken and not fit for purpose in the 21st Century and at a time when technology is moving apace. Three years on since Barber et al (2013) published the report, the pace and impact of technology, the infinite possibilities and scale of the Internet of things (IoT), the critical importance of the student voice, and the increasingly connected and homogeneous international education sector fuelled by social media, (and) the call to develop and enable culturally intelligent, skilled, future-proofed, and resilient higher education leaders and managers is more imminent than ever before.

The core issue of this article is how and what universities are doing and can do to build and maintain an adaptive and capable higher education workforce. Where does one start? What measures would be used objectively to validate and prove that universities are making headway and leading the way to build a higher education workforce for the future? Published journals and books in the last decade focused on universities’ role in educating students of the future. Limited studies examined what universities are doing to their own workforces of the future. It is a tough question as the underlying question one needs to address is what changes need to be made to ensure universities, like any other companies or establishments who, as employers, have the right people to deliver results and impact,   in order to meet the expectations and key performance indicators, which their stakeholders, from taxpayers (should it be public funded universities) to communities (which universities are one of the many citizens in them) to board members, explicitly and implicitly expect and envisage.

This article explores the findings and implications of a major study into “the workforce of the future in the higher education sector”, instigated by The Australian Higher Education Industrial Association (AHEIA) in October 2015. The options presented in the final report (January 2016) aimed to provide solutions to universities, who are the primary users. Two key questions were identified to guide the research and subsequent analysis, conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), which applied a blend of qualitative and quantitative research methods. The two questions were:

  1. Which drivers of change will have the greatest impact on the higher education sector in the next 10–15 years?

  2. What does this mean for how universities will need to structure their workforces in the future?

At this juncture, it is important to understand why the study was commissioned at the time in Australia. First of all, Australia’s official name is the Commonwealth of Australia, formed on 1 January 1901, making it a relatively young country of 115 years, despite the fact that the land of Australia has been inhabited by the first inhabitants of the land for thousands of years. Secondly, Australia’s universities are also relatively young, with only four of them being established before the Commonwealth of Australia came into existence in the 20th Century.  Thirdly, Australia has a relatively high percentage of 25–64 year olds with tertiary education at 43% (OECD, 2016), compared with the average across OECD countries. The 43% included international students. Fourthly, private funding makes up 58% of expenditure in tertiary education in Australia, the fifth highest share across OECD countries. The 58% is heavily skewed by the high proportion of international students who paid differential and premium tuition fees, vis-à-vis domestic students. Finally, the demand driven system introduced in 2011 saw an upsurge of domestic students who enrolled at universities. In 2014, over one million students enrolled and one in four of them was an international student.

In short, universities in Australia employed over 100,000 staff (Universities Australia, 2015), accounted for AUD 27.9 billion (94.6%) of the total revenue (AUD 29.5 billion) in higher education services for 2015 (Norton, 2016)in a young country with a relatively young higher education sector and characterised by an above average of tertiary education participation in OECD countries, reliant on private funding predominantly coming from tuition fees and international students.

Similar to many industries, the higher education sector in Australia faces   a number of mega trends at a macro level. The five external drivers which are found to be of significance and would impact upon the sector in the next 10–15 years are: industry which expects universities to educate “work ready” graduates; technology which continues to challenge conventional delivery of curricula, research and student services; competition of staff and students which comes from both at home and abroad; employability upon graduation which students expect; and domestic policy in support of higher education and research and associated funding provision by government. The findings of “the workforce of the future in the higher education sector” study found that government policy and funding arrangement, impact and pace of technological change and increased global competition are ranked in the top three environment factors with the most impact on universities in the next 10–15 years, followed by changing modes of learning, teaching and student engagement (page 26, AHEIA and PwC, 2016).

In Australia alone, it is estimated that “the Australian university sector contributed around AUD 25 billion to the Australian economy in 2013, accounting for over 1.5% of Australia’s GDP and 160,000 full time equivalent (FTE) jobs.” (Deloitte Access Economics, 2015). For a large, diverse and complex university workforce to respond to the above-mentioned environmental factors in a timely, proactive and enduring way, under the enterprise agreements in Australian higher education sector, it is neither a brisk process nor an easy task.

“On 1 July 2009, the various types of collective and individual workplace agreements that existed under the previous workplace relations system were replaced by a single type of agreement: an ‘enterprise agreement’. This is simply an agreement between one or more national system employers and their employees, as specified in the agreement. Enterprise agreements are negotiated by the parties through collective bargaining in good faith, primarily at the enterprise level. Under the Fair Work Act 2009, an enterprise can mean any kind of business, activity, project or undertaking” (Fair Work Ombudsmen, Australian Government).

While the workforce of the future in the higher education sector report sets out three options of reimagining the workforce from capability, structure and engagement, and provided some encouraging case studies within the Australian higher education sector, enterprise bargaining agreement process (EBA) determines the timeliness and effectiveness of developing a reimagined higher education workforce. Out of 215 respondents for the question on “To what extent does your university’s enterprise agreement(s) make it difficult for your university to have a high quality and highly productive workforce”, only 12% said it was not difficult. The significance of how enterprise agreements affects the Australian higher education, therefore, cannot be understated or underestimated.

What needs to happen, what the barriers are and how to get there

Generally speaking, universities enjoy a deliberate, peaceful and protected environment for academic pursuits. There is no doubt that globalisation of higher education in recent years and the foreseeable mega trends observed in the global higher education have drastically shaken the university communities from the West to the East. The study into the workforce of the future in the higher education sector, instigated by AHEIA, rightly highlighted three attributes which all university workforces will need to have, namely, agility and flexibility, professionalisation and specialisation. These attributes are, perhaps, until only recently, unfamiliar to the higher education sector. Barber et al (2011) highlights the importance of top talent in delivery when he was head of the Delivery Unit set up by the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. In many ways, staff in universities share many similarities to staff in the public sector. Top talent is defined by “five core competencies: problem solving, data analysis, relationship management (sensitivity, empathy, fairness, and humility), feedback and coaching, and a delivery mind-set (a can-do attitude). These core competencies are not necessarily capabilities which traditionally looked upon favourably when universities, particularly those in public sector, recruited staff both in teaching, research, administration, management and leadership. It is not uncommon to find employees in universities who have only one employer throughout their decades’ long career within institutions and many of them moved from one position to another without a competitive recruitment process and yet hold a substantive portfolio with a wide span of control from budget to number of staff. After all, there is no quick fix to mediocrity of universities’ performance management.

The commissioned study by AHEIA is a timely project and provides substantial food for thought. It does however, need to be extended to the wider higher education staff across the whole sector. The current study only surveyed 0.215% of individuals who worked at management level from vice chancellor to head of schools and departments in the Australian sector. Out of all the respondents in the study, 79% of the respondents worked in the capacity of heading a faculty, a college, a school or an administrative unit. There is an obvious disconnect between what management thinks and what employees perceive of what’s happening on the ground and how they should be organised and what capabilities are required in the 21st Century. It is anticipated that not until the study is extended to the whole of higher education sector will it gain attention and traction of the change in workforce capability, workforce structure and workforce engagement. It is still early days but in the current, fast-moving environment higher education is in globally, do we have the luxury of taking time before the sector is disrupted?!

Winnie Eley holds the position of deputy vice chancellor (international and advancement) at The University of Newcastle (UON), Australia. Winnie leads the strategic direction and sets priorities of UON’s inaugural global partnership plan (2014–2018) which encompasses global engagement and representation; institutional partnerships and reputation; philanthropy, sponsorship and student mobility.  She is an appointed auditor for the Quality Assurance Committee (2014– 2019) of University Grants Committee in Hong Kong; and a member of the International Academic Advisory Committee for both QS-APPLE and QS-MAPLE. Winnie has studied, lived, volunteered and worked across continents from Africa, Asia, Australia/Oceania, Europe, North America to the UK. She has spent the last two decades in advancing wider education participation and mobility; devising international development strategy; and refining a  whole-institution approach and associated teams, skills, systems, structures, educational and professional services.