Future-Proofing Australia’s Workforce

Business and Education Leaders Review

7 August 2018

The change is enormous, exciting and daunting.

At the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce’s Future-Proofing Australia’s Workforce – Business and Education Leaders Review on 7 August 2018, a distinguished panel including Jillian Broadbent AO, Chancellor of the University of Wollongong, Prof. Attila Brungs, Vice-Chancellor and President, University of Technology Sydney, Prof. S. Bruce Dowton, President and Vice-Chancellor, Macquarie University, David Gonski AC, Chancellor of the University of NSW and Chairman ANZ Bank and Christine McLoughlin, Chairman elect of the Suncorp Group discussed future-proofing our workforce. The discussion was moderated by Kellie Sloane GAICD, CEO, Life Education NSW.

This event was sponsored by: Optus and PwC.

Are our children being taught for the future? What are the key changes that are emerging in the next decade?

David Gonski said with digital and the explosion of social media, many jobs will change, but he is an optimist. 10-15 years out will be superb, we’ll be doing jobs better and in a more interesting way, but what will happen in the meantime? He worries about that period. People are worried about losing their jobs, we have to make it easy for them to make the change.

Prof. Attila Brungs said we can absolutely carve out the right path. One of the biggest changes is a lifetime of learning. None of us have really experienced this before, but for those who are coming though, it’s their discrete habitat. We need to think in terms of 0-100 years old, not primary and high school. How do we build this thinking into educational institutions so they are excited and not frightened? What are the unique skills that human beings have? Of course, there is technology – AI and machine learning – but there’s lots we do as humans that won’t change – creativity, collaboration, problem solving.

Christine McLoughlin is also an optimist: she said we need to suspend some of the current beliefs we have about what is possible; we need a more positive narrative; we must re-define what flexibility of work means – multiple employers, contracts, mobile employees taking their skills with them depending on capability and passion. This is a different model to what we currently have. We need continuous learning across the ecosystem. Also, how do we collaborate between government, education and business? We haven’t done this to date; there’s much more we can do in the collaboration space.

Jillian Broadbent AO said it’s important to change the dialogue to one of excitement. It’s currently dominated by “students are lazy, universities are stuck in ivory towers…” New technologies have accelerated the learning process, there are more exciting jobs, we can be more productive. Universities are trying to maintain the curriculum, build on life skills and include technology. Employers are outsourcing more, so individuals can be consultants. She suggests go into an organisation and try something yourself, look constantly at ways to build your skills, observe others.

Prof. S. Bruce Dowton is also optimistic but his optimism is tethered with caution. He said we must not deny the reality of preparing people to deal with complexity, as much as preparing them for technology. Universities must get the balance right between new types of courses, but we also have a responsibility to have people emerge who are able to cope with complexity. Let’s not overswing the pendulum, it is imperative we consider what is good for the medium and long term for the health of our societies.

How is the change in augmented learning happening?

Prof. Dowton said there is a move toward students becoming co-creators of their learning processes. Attila said we mustn’t toss out the importance of the old. Internships give students meaningful, real experience of work is going to be like. 40% of students don’t want a job, they want to have their own start-ups – how do you do that at scale? We need to think in different modes. UTS is removing remaining lecture theatres, replacing them with small-scale collaborative classrooms. The space in which people learn needs to allow them to do what they do best, which is work collaboratively. But we can’t do this on our own, we need to work closely with business. The curriculum is currently informed by business but it needs to go up a level. How do we work with businesses to ensure lifelong learning continues? We need to educate people all through their lives and dissolve artificial barriers between leaving work back to uni, then back to work, etc.

Christine spoke of her experience at the Singularity University where she learned that in third world countries they’re using holograms to teach. How far are we from using technology holograms in education? When we can beam in the expertise? We need excitement about what is possible.

What do business leaders need to be doing?

David says you need to value your employees, allow them to expand in their thinking and in their lives. If we ignore that we’re human, we will be overcome by the IT revolution. People like talking to each other and solving problems, how do we do this while still recognising the digital age? Replace large lecture theatres with small flip spaces. Remember that not everyone wants to work for us – some want to contract, ski in morning and work in afternoons.

Christine said we need to re-skill employees whose skills need re-pointing so that we have the appropriate skills for where our business models are going. As large employers, we need to create education pathways for our workers and work in collaboration with educational institutions.

Are universities and schools keeping up to date with what we teach? Why not just teach coding instead of English or History?

We need to be broad in our thinking because future workers need to be able to think absolutely. If you’re going to go to university, stay there, talk to people, immerse yourself in areas of communal living so that you remain human because, if you remain human, you will be successful. University is a contact sport – life skills, working in groups. If we want to move from an agricultural to a mining to an innovation and human service-based nation, it requires a well-educated society. There is concern about the threat of funding cuts, not just to universities but for the VET and TAFE sectors too.

Higher education is a huge part of our economy – are getting rid of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) a threat to international students coming here?

Jillian said she doesn’t think so, demand comes from the students domestically and internationally. Attila said that anything that can be taught by a MOOC should be. David said foreign students don’t just come for the pearls that you can watch on the MOOCs, they come because Australia is a wonderful place to visit. If we give them a good experience, they’ll keep coming. They’re coming for more than just what we teach them.

The relationship between higher education and industry

It’s a collective challenge; everyone has to pull their weight in this regard. Attila said we need to build attributes at the same time as learning a discipline. How do you solve real, complex problems with other people? That’s the role of universities in partnership with industry. Jillian said there’s currently insufficient understanding by employers about what universities are doing. We need business to use the research and development that’s happening in the universities. There’s less inclination from business to consider what’s been done in the universities, but that can put us ahead globally. Prof. Dowton said we need to reframe the conversation – what can I do for you, and what can you do for me? Can we make our boundaries more porous, how can we add value to each other’s work? Can we work together in a collaborative way to solve problems?

How should the conversation at home with teenagers change?

Prof. Dowton said urge them to think about the how what they want to do fits with a particular university. He said he’s been critiqued for this, but thinks universities are too homogeneous and need more differentiation. We need to encourage individuality and diversification. We need to treat them as individuals – this is much more of an American, rather than an Australian, way of thinking. It’s about exciting them about what they can do for the future. Tell your teenagers “develop your understanding of yourself. What can you do? What excites you?”