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New thinking needed to help students navigate the future

I was delighted recently when, through Commonwealth Minister Dan Tehan, I was asked by COAG’s Education Council to chair a review of how to improve senior secondary pathways into training, future education and work. So, I know, were the other members of the panel who collectively bring a wealth of experience to the enquiry: Tom Calma, Patrick O’Reilly, Sarina Russo, Patrea Walton, Jennifer Westacott and Don Zoellner.

Our goal, in the words of the National Schools Reform Agreement, is “to ensure students leave school with the best education and skills to enable them to navigate life beyond school”. We have just issued a discussion paper and background paper designed to spark interest and generate public debate. They can be found here.

At a personal level, which is the position from which I write this article, this is a matter of significant public policy. Working lives depend on it. Let me frame my initial thoughts around four key issues.

Context

Much of the debate about the transition from school has been focused on the proposition that a demand-driven system has persuaded too many young people to undertake university education. This, it is suggested, leads to lower academic standards and higher rates of non-completion. It may also increase the burden of income-contingent debts that students will find harder to repay if the lifetime income rewards for a degree start to decline. Many observers believe this is likely.

It is suggested that it would be better, and more economically rational, for some of these young people instead to choose vocationally-oriented education, industry-oriented skills training and/or formal apprenticeships. Now the truth is that some of these underlying propositions do not seem to be strongly supported by evidence. But the prevailing narrative strongly influences political debate and public discourse.

I sense, however, that the either/or framing of the higher/vocational education argument is being overtaken by events. There is increasing recognition that the demarcation between the two forms of education is becoming ever less clear cut. Perhaps it is better to envisage (or even rediscover) a single tertiary sector in which students move smoothly between different forms of certificated training. They may choose to undertake, consecutively or concurrently, a variety of learning opportunities that will provide them with a portfolio of qualifications – degrees, diplomas, certificates, structured internships and micro-credentials. Industry might provide some of this directly. Perhaps students can be encouraged to create their own educational passports whilst at school, which they can continue to update throughout their working lives?

Institutional rigidities will need to give way to far more flexible pathways to career-oriented learning. The structure of financial incentives and disincentives, and the cultural biases that often create false perceptions of a hierarchy of educational status, will need to be changed. We need to encourage students to make choices that better reflect their own interests and ambitions. But to do this, young people will need a better navigational assistance to decide which suite of training, education and employment experience best prepares them for the path ahead. It is a future in which their success is going to depend upon a proven capacity to continue to develop their capabilities through lifelong learning, rather than just acquiring a suite of professional, administrative or trade skills that will equip them for today’s workplace.

Paradox

The good news – and we should proclaim it with some pride – is that the Australian educational system now provides more second chances that ever before. A student who performs academically poorly at school today has a much better chance than in the past of finding a pathway into university, either by taking university foundation or bridging courses, transferring on the basis of success in vocational education or work experience or entering as a mature aged student. That is why, overall, only a minority of students win their place at university solely on the basis of their ATAR score. Even for school students, many universities now admit an increasing number on the basis of their success in certain HSC subjects (rather than on a composite single score). Some gain admission by submitting a portfolio of work or even on interview performance.

The opportunity to find new pathways into education is particularly beneficial to disadvantaged students who may have struggled at school. The increasing proportion of university students from low socio-economic backgrounds symbolises this success: I speak as chancellor of a university in which almost a third of students now come from low socio-economic backgrounds.

Paradoxically, however, it is these same disadvantaged students who are least likely to be well-informed about the post-school opportunities that are available. Students who live in rural and remote communities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, students with a disability and those brought up in poorer or less educated families are the least likely find the information they need to access the variety of employment, training and educational opportunities that are available to improve their human capital (and, consequently, their life chances).

Education and training, in whatever form, is the best way for disadvantaged young people to overcome their deficits, build their strengths and – in meeting Australia’s future skill needs – help revitalise the institutional foundations of equal opportunity. Full integration into the labour market offers young people steadier employment, greater income, more family stability and enhanced civic participation. It’s the game-changer. The successful transition from school to work is crucial to ensuring that family disadvantage can be overcome and that Australia can remain a socially mobile and egalitarian nation. A ‘fair go’ society depends in large measure upon how well young people of all backgrounds can access opportunities as they move from school to work. At the moment information on these opportunities is asymmetrically distributed. Those who need it most receive it least.

Uncertainty

It is a truism that the future of work is uncertain. There are strong indicators that we are entering the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres on a global level. Its most obvious features are increased robotic automation, speech recognition, natural language processing, machine learning and the beginning of artificial intelligence. The collective impact of these cognitive technologies is unclear. Some commentators anticipate a dystopian workless society: others, on the basis of past historical experience, remain sanguine that new jobs will be created to replace those that are destroyed. There is more general agreement that the skills required of occupations are likely to change profoundly and rapidly. And, unlike the earlier era of mechanisation, it is professional and administrative skills that are most likely to be undermined.

How do we best prepare senior secondary students for such uncertainty? On the one hand, many argue that we will need to provide more young people with the science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills to understand and oversee an age of computerised information mining, big data analytics and pervasive digital communication. On the other hand, others believe that the skills that are likely to increase in value are those that will continue to require human interaction: an increasing number of jobs in education; health; and child, aged and disability care will need people trained to exercise autonomy with emotional intelligence. We can begin to imagine a future in which the relationship between the robotic and the human, between soft skills and hard skills, becomes more fully integrated. We will need both coders and carers.

There is one only certainty. In a world in which employment structures are likely to be transformed, we need to educate students who can continue to learn through their working lives. We need to help students prepare not for the first five years after they leave school but for the next fifty years of working life. We need to ensure that as young people transition to employment they have learned how to analyse, conceptualise and solve problems; to be able to assess the provenance and reliability of evidence; to communicate clearly; to undertake tasks with little direct supervision; and to work as part of a workplace team that brings together a diversity of skills and experience harnessed to a particular task. The question is: how do we best help young people to develop these generic capabilities as they prepare to transition from school? How do we give them the confidence that they can cope with a future that at present we can see only through a glass, darkly?

Wholeness

Too often young people believe that their individual capacity is judged by a single academic score at the end of year 12. The ATAR mark – or its equivalent – seems to many students, parents and teachers to define success, even to the extent that students are sometimes encouraged to lower their ambitions and undertake lower-level subjects in order to maximise their score. Others, often boys, become discouraged by their perceived lack of academic ability. Adolescents often feel under intense pressure. Too many find it hard to deal with the stress. Yet the reality is that for the majority of students an academic mark at age 18 is a pretty poor indicator of educational capacity, let alone workplace potential.

We need to measure the complete person. Of course, academic success in the basic skills – reading, writing, mathematics and (today) digital literacy – remains important. But together they represent just some of the indicators of potential. Young people (and those who judge them) need to understand that it is the whole individual that is important. Some of that person may be seen inside the classroom, but much of their character is only evident outside it. In preparing for adulthood we need young people who have learned to think for themselves.

Academic success is only one indicator of that capacity. The part-time workforce experience of students; their vocational skills; their community engagements; their sporting achievements and their interpersonal drive and capacity should all be taken into account in assessing their readiness for the workplace and civil society. Perhaps we need to imagine a leaving certificate that assesses the capacity of a student more broadly and, in doing so, sends out a strong message about the variety of interests, commitment and energy that will enhance career prospects?

These are bold ideas. They challenge the institutional demarcations and hierarchies that presently constrain young people’s perceived opportunities. I think it’s about time we became more willing to embrace the potential of disruption. We need to empower young people to make their own decisions with eyes wide open – a transition that they can control based upon informed choice. Perhaps we need to prepare senior secondary students not for university or TAFE or an apprenticeship, but for a single seamless tertiary sector in which they can move flexibly between different types of education, skills training and employment, learning to learn their way through life?

Peter Shergold is chancellor of Western Sydney University.

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