Sharing innovation to inspire action

University Education - A New Model for a New Era


There are more than one million students enrolled in Australian Universities. The majority of these are undergraduate students chasing the dream of a better life. They have enrolled because they believe that if they graduate from University then meaningful employment will shortly follow.

They believe this because it is an ingrained cultural narrative that if you go to University you will get a better job.

The Problem

Unfortunately, these students are following an outdated playbook, and they face an environment where:

  1. There are fewer ?zero-experience? entry level graduate roles than ever; and
  2. Employers increasingly do not care that they have a University degree.

The consequence to the student is painful, and the cost to our economy is profound: these graduates are taking roles that someone without an expensive university education can easily fill. If this trend continues then a University education becomes less of a pathway to meaningful employment and more of a luxury good.

Our review reveals that the next generation of students is likely to have up to 17 different employers across at least five different careers .They enter a world burdened by the unsustainable consumption of previous generations, and they need to confront declining biodiversity, increasing global warming, fake news and the re-emergence of dictatorial political leaders. They are the first generation in decades whose standard of living is likely to be materially lower than their parents.

The dominant mindset in the University sector is that minor advancements to the status quo are all that is needed to continue attracting vast numbers of high calibre, high paying students.

In the longer term, prospective students will gradually wake up to the fact that they are seeking employment in a world vastly different to that encountered by the previous generation. If all Universities have to offer is their current model, then these future potential students will increasingly abandon the university system.

What stands out to us above all was that the voice of the customer ? students ? is almost entirely absent from the dialogue. We seek to bring a ?student-first? perspective to this debate.

The current model

University education is currently focussed on the Knowledge Model.

This model focusses on:

[1] Creation of knowledge [2] Curation of problems, and [3] The distribution of knowledge.

Millions of hours of student effort are wasted in broadcast lectures, theoretical conversations and repetitive drudgery aimed at building and testing knowledge often out of date before the degree is completed.

A new model

Based on our research we believe Universities should transition to the Applied Model.

This model focusses on:

[1] Creation of knowledge [2] Curation of problems, and

[3] The direction and credentialing of student effort to solve these problems.

Large scale problems are addressed in socially collaborative scenarios across multiple subjects, degrees and faculties. The energy and enthusiasm of students is harnessed by academics coaching them to actively and continuously achieve and question knowledge in context ? beyond the historic content of a specific academic discipline .

The Applied Model is designed to foster and credential an individual?s ability to search for and apply relevant knowledge to a defined problem.

It? is a concept designed to better cater to the needs of society, business and students today in an environment where the half-life of useful knowledge and skills is on a continuous decline. The economy is placing different demands on graduate students and universities need to in-turn change their product to better prepare graduate students for an erratic career path.

The Applied Model differs from the current Knowledge Model in three specific ways:

  1. It places greater emphasis on the institution as curator of the ?problems? ? and in so doing proposes a new role for them in society.
  2. It does not focus on one specific discipline but proposes that disciplines or faculties are united across the effort to scope and solve a problem.
  3. It suggests that the role of an academic in a student?s life must be transitioned from that of lecturer [and a font of singular knowledge sets at a given period in time] to one of a coach across a breadth and wider vision of what is possible, aiding not only in the foundation of a student?s knowledge whilst at university and beyond.

International trends

Through our work we seek to draw attention to the danger of comfortable lies ? beware those who suggest that minor alterations to the status quo will maintain the global success of Australian Universities. In a global, technology driven education market, the high calibre, high paying students are mobile customers.

Data from Citibank shows that globally, young people are desperately seeking more real-world preparation ? with 78% believing internships and apprenticeships are critical for success.

Australia and its education system relies on international students to a greater degree than any other country in the world. Education related travel services are our largest service export (and third largest export item behind iron and coal).

Other countries are investing significantly in their education systems and Australia?cannot compete at a fiscal level.

Consequently, for Australia to have a competitive advantage in the market place it must have a unique, more compelling offering to students that will stand them in front of the market ? certainly something far smarter than a nice country to arrive in and good living conditions (where according to the International Student Barometer we outperform the global market by 2% and 1% respectively.

The current Knowledge Model sits at the heart of the University offering and a continued reliance on this model will inevitably result in a downwards trajectory. To achieve growth in a highly competitive market higher education providers must improve both their product offering and business model.

Through the introduction of an Applied Model, we would see Universities becoming curators and custodians of large real-world problems. In doing so, Universities would then frame their degree structure to run across multiple faculties to address the resolution of those problems. Through this process it is believed that we would see Universities taking greater advantage of technologies and educational content provided by other sources (such as businesses, academic providers, government institutions, think tanks, etc.) to produce more rounded, agile graduates.

The business view

Businesses are finding it challenging to forecast the skills they will need in the future because they are unsure of the precise nature of the problems ahead or what is required to solve them. In these circumstances, according to Deloitte, firms search for individuals who:

  • Have a demonstrable interest in prosecuting the problem at hand
  • Have a track record of having solved similar types of problems successfully in the past
  • Have broad experience and a track record of integrating new knowledge and skills into their work
  • Are connected to a broad range of communities that enable them to tap into a diverse range of new ideas, skills and techniques
  • Exhibit behaviours that enable them to integrate into and work effectively as part of a larger team.

As conventional full-time employment diminishes in place of more transactional employer/ employee relationships and environments, firms begin to seek agents who can, individually and as a team, create solutions that the firm can deploy to their customers.

There are already powerful signals from the market that University education is a luxury good, not a differentiating signal of quality: many employers of choice are no longer requiring a tertiary degree for vacant roles.

Google does not list University degrees among its entry-level job requirements and firms EY and PwC??two of the biggest recruiters of graduate students in the Australia and the world - and major publisher Penguin Random House, are among companies that have removed the need for university degrees in their graduate programs.

There are however some careers that can only be accessed via the rigour and credibility of a University and the degree it bestows on its successful graduates. Medicine and engineering are the most obvious, although interestingly these are also the domains which have most aggressively adopted problem based learning.

Recently a 10-year study- the CEO Genome Project assessing 17,000 C-suite executives, including more than 2,000 CEOs, from all major industry sectors and a full range of company sizes - set about to identify the specific attributes that differentiate high-performing CEOs.

It revealed that there were four specific attributes that led to success as a CEO:

1. Deciding with speed and conviction: CEO?s who consistently made decisions earlier, faster, and with greater conviction.

2. Engaging for impact: CEO?s with astute understanding of their stakeholders? needs and motivations, who got people on board by driving for performance and aligning them around the goal of value creation were 75% more successful in the role.

3. Adapting proactively: CEO?s who excel at adapting to a rapidly changing environment, [e.g. the aftermath of Brexit and the recent U.S. presidential election] are 6.7 times more likely to succeed.

4. Delivering reliably: Demonstrating the ability to reliably produce results, 94% of the strong CEO candidates analysed scored high on consistently following through on their commitments .

These are all attributes generally overlooked in the current Knowledge Model and more likely to be fostered and developed through the Applied Model.

Work Integrated Learning

Work Integrated Learning [WIL] is an umbrella term for a range of approaches and strategies that integrate academic theory with the practice of work within a purposefully designed curriculum. Specifically, WIL is aimed at improving the employability of graduates by giving them valuable practical experience which is directly related to courses being studied at University. WIL also improves the transition from University to work and productivity outcomes for the employer and the economy .

With an estimated 60 per cent of graduate professions being dramatically impacted by automation in the next 10 years a variety of WIL educational products, such as micro-courses, will be integral to the employment model of the future.

However no Australian University has been able to deliver a quality WIL program at scale [1000+ students at a time] ? primarily due to the complexity of corporate partner acquisition and management.

While creative thinking is becoming highly desirable, critical thinking is more important than ever before. As information [which may not always be correct] can be accessed at the touch of a button students need to learn how to interpret information to avoid having the wool pulled over their eyes.

The Applied Model which requires deeper thought and awareness of the ?now? in application of solutions, inspires a more enquiring approach than the one which delivers a specific knowledge set which may be academically valid, yet not be relevant to the matter at hand.

A practical example

The multi award-winning PACE (Professional and Community Engagement) program is offered to all undergraduate students at Macquarie University and is a vital part of their career preparation. Through PACE they can go beyond the classroom to apply their learning in practice. They undertake a practical activity with one of over 3,000 Partner organisations across Australia and around the world to learn from industry leaders in their chosen field, gain vital contacts, and develop the employability skills they need to start their careers.?

IdeaSpies, an ideas platform, is a current Partner organisation. Interns are offered the opportunity to learn how to identify innovations that improve our lives, express the underlying ideas clearly, publish and share them. The IdeaSpies purpose is sharing innovation to inspire action.

Interns have been referred to the ON program at the CSIRO as a source of ideas. With coaching, their ability to express ideas has significantly improved. As a result the students developed an IdeaSpies Campus Editor program so that other students could be trained and receive the same learning benefit as well as a credential they can add to their CV?s having met the requirement to be an Editor.

The challenge however, as previously mentioned, is scaling the program. How is it possible to train enough students to become IdeaSpies Campus Editors? A new program such as this needs commitment from a University to succeed. A University that is adopting an Applied Model would be more likely to fast track implementation of such an idea.


Universities need to consider and adopt a new model of learning to prosper in the new era. The Applied Model is more relevant to the changes and challenges in the current environment. Australian Universities in particular should consider this model to serve the needs of students and businesses, enhance the careers of their academics and remain internationally competitive into the future.

By David Burt- Co-Founder CSIRO ON Program

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By IdeaSpies

19th August 2019


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