Declining Futures? A View from the Ground Up
During the upheaval and crisis caused by COVID-19, many institutions have been forced to fundamentally change their approach to education. Many long-standing colleges and universities are sounding the alarm, recognizing that the previously large pools of overseas applicants have dried up, while the global discussion around education ponders the question: What makes an education worthwhile?
Here, history can inform us. Education can be the catalyst for change, both political and social. An example of exposure to a unified system of knowledge originates in my home country of Australia with the development of compulsory childhood education in the late 19th century (Meadmore, 2001) and the subsequent widespread growth of labor rights movements (Sheldon, 1993), coinciding with the movement of those children into adulthood. Our current global climate now calls those in the current youth demographic to action, led by fresh leaders stepping onto the scene with new ideas backed by societal and scientific understanding.
Without the extensive international interests that had previously shored up many universities, institutions’ focus must turn inward to the needs of domestic students. Identifying these needs and engaging students both young and mature will be shaped by ideas of the future we want to build. “Higher education institutions have a compelling reason to align with principles of social responsibility” (Irvin, 2020, p. 147) as the public-private partnerships that provide the funding for these institutions diversify and expand. Declining enrollments, particularly in courses deemed “premium products” (such as the arts and humanities in Australian universities), will require a shift in both thought and advertising. Politicians and academics alike have raised fundamental questions the value and integrity of the very institutions that have trained experts for centuries.
From a business perspective, the initial value placed on a tertiary education may well seem ephemeral—an expensive endeavor in learning about concepts that do not always translate neatly into measures of productivity, profit, and promotion (McArthur et al., 2017). It is this type of thinking that appears to be behind the increased focus on “skills-based” courses, such as nursing and teaching (Daly & Lewis, 2020).
Amid these discussions, however, academic leaders need to make more explicit the skills that the experience of going to university provides. This justification for the continued existence of the higher education sector needs to incorporate the encouragement of students to enroll in courses that will not only help them obtain jobs but also allow graduates to see themselves as competent, resilient, and flexible members of the workforce and the global community.
How should this translate into the university sector, which faces with the prospect of declining enrollments? What is the fundamental value of the product, and why should those considering their options choose this over that? What actions do we as educators and leaders take to secure the university’s place in an increasingly business-focused world?
Focus on the added value
For many students, a university education is a transition between childhood and adulthood during which skills and perspectives develop. For business purposes, it is the perspectives molded by critical thinking and comprehensive analysis that are of particular use. Graduates with these skills ask questions that improve efficiency, that inherently ask, “What is the best way that I can help you?”—an important part of sales, communications, and human resources. Academic leaders can help students develop these perspectives by focusing in on the skill of critical analysis—encouraging the use of how and why questions, the identification of limitations, and the navigation of barriers. Graduates with this experience train for several years in the functional identification of possibilities, essential for any business expansion or improvement.
Industry leaders value university graduates for their perspective not only on life but also on the ethics of navigating social media and public communication—a domain where a misstep may be not only embarrassing but also costly. As educators, modeling these skills is the first step toward assisting students to incorporate the understanding of different contexts and perspectives in their own communications. As the social world changes, disciplines must consider the “unheard voices” as a question of accuracy and integrity—as well as managing risk. Through this expansion of materials into a range of perspectives, with a focus on bias, educators can prepare their students to engage with the complex, nuanced world of public perception.
In higher education, students necessarily become self-starters. They develop a combination of passion and pragmatism that allows them to persist in their studies. They organize their work through goal setting, self-monitor their progress, engage with constructive feedback, manage their time, and work consistently on a project for an extended period to produce something of value. These are exactly the skills any business needs, no matter the industry, and academic leaders can scaffold and model these skills not only in their attitudes toward teaching but also in the holistic design of subjects and courses.
A product with declining sales might be revived through promotion of added value or the creation of interpersonal connections with potential consumers. The core message in both cases is that the product will fulfill a need or enhance life experiences, appealing to individual circumstances. This approach is two-pronged for the academic field; not only are graduates able to execute these forms of synthesis and communication effectively, but academic leaders can also leverage this approach to promote the value of an academic education. Creating explicit connections between what students learn and how this will benefit them approaches this endeavor actionably. Examples of this include explicitly connecting the skill of argument construction through essay writing to confidence in asking for pay raises or employment, or addressing how communicating well and engaging with varied perspectives will benefit not only their work relationships but also their personal ones.
With the fast pace of information in the modern world, businesses understand both the need and the risk associated with the quick development of content that is “on brand” and consistent. University graduates are assessed on this ability to create consistent messaging around their ideas from their first year of higher education. Emphasizing through explicit discussion, the issues of reliability and accuracy surrounding research helps graduates avoid the promotion of potentially commercially embarrassing misinformation both in public-facing and company-focused roles.
If universities wish to counteract their declining enrollments, they must adopt ideas from business to justify the continued need for their product, incorporating more than merely the concept of profit and loss. Businesses that move forward with a goal in mind of the type of world they wish to participate in—one shaped by ethics and humanity—see longevity and positive impacts on the world, in addition to increased profits (Bixby & Mahoney, 2020). Academic leaders, much like the world around us have been encouraged to transition, adapt and pivot strategies to succeed commercially. Individuals exiting academia are now expected to not only be well-versed in research, but also competent as “team leaders, managers, and marketing experts” (McAlpine & Austin, 2019).
Universities and individual academics focusing on: defining added value to justify their placement; maintaining their integrity; training graduates in the skills of avoiding misinformation; and creating attitudes that allow graduates to weigh perspectives to make the most beneficial decisions will find that the human connection that creates supportive word-of-mouth advertising will follow naturally. This molding of business-ready graduates who look back at their education with hope and to upcoming education with optimism may seem like a dive into the world of capital and profit, but it is instead the pathway to the university future, where academic integrity, knowledge, and skills—the core “business” of education—are promoted and valued for their own merit.
Bixby, S. & Mahoney, C. (2020). ESG chart of the week: 2021 JUST 100 companies outperform the market. JUSTCapital. https://justcapital.com/news/esg-chart-of-the-week-2021-just-companies-outperform-the-market
Daly, A. & Lewis, P. (2020). The proposed job-ready graduate Package: A misguided arrow missing its target. Australian Journal of Labour Economics, 23(2), 231–251. https://businesslaw.curtin.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2020/09/129339-AJLE-Vol-23-No-2-2020-7530-FINAL.pdf
Irvin, M. R. (2020). Valuing social responsibility in the era of data analytics. In S. L. Johnson (Ed.), Examining Social Change and Social Responsibility in Higher Education (pp. 143–160). IGI Global. https://doi.org/10.4018/978-1-7998-2177-9.ch011
McAlpine, L. & Austin, N. (2019). Humanities PhD graduates: Desperately seeking careers? Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 48(2), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.7202/1057100ar
McArthur, E., Kubacki, K., Pang, B. & Alcaraz, C. (2017). The employers’ view of “work-ready” graduates: A study of advertisements for marketing jobs in Australia. Journal of Marketing Education, 39(2), 82–93. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475317712766
Meadmore, P. (2001). “Free, compulsory and secular”? The re-invention of Australian public education. Journal of Education Policy, 16(2), 113–125. https://doi.org/10.1080/02680930010025329
Sheldon, P. (1993). Arbitration and union growth: Building and construction unions in NSW, 1901–1912. Journal of Industrial Relations, 35(3), 379–397. https://doi.org/10.1177/002218569303500302
Tabin Brooks is a sessional (adjunct) staff member in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, School of Biomedical Sciences and is the Wagga Campus Coordinator for the Pathways Program at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia.