This is a question that has been asked in the press for some time now.

The answer is yes in some fields and no in others! Some areas certainly are undersupplied.

Too many university graduates in the wrong occupations?

A university degree is often sold as the most rewarding option for young people in particular, with strong guarantees of on-going employment and a relatively high income. Is this the case or not? Read more

A recent article by Tony Featherstone in the Age argues that in-demand professions are screaming for graduates in emerging fields like software  engineering, cyber security and artificial intelligence they cannot get – unless they come from overseas. On the other hand, he says, universities are pumping out many thousands of graduates in oversupplied occupations. It’s easy to just blame universities, although they need to take some of the responsibility for not moving fast enough to develop programs in emerging vocational areas. Featherstone argues, though, that schools, students and their parents, and industry itself, must also carry some of the can.

He suggests:

“Australia can ill-afford to produce too many graduates in the wrong professions and too few in in-demand ones. We will be left behind if this trend continues and rely on overseas skilled migration in more industries.”

Part of the solution is better careers advice, and there has been plenty of call for that too. But with such a wide range of choice available: educational sectors, courses, institutions, it is no wonder that the ‘right’ choices are hard to make and things can get very confusing! The job market can also be very different by the time students finish a four-year degree. And it is also all too easy for unnecessary ‘qualification creep’ to develop just to try to get that ‘edge’.

In an earlier article in 2016 in the Sydney Morning Herald Featherstone asked a few pertinent questions:

“Why are students choosing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to earn qualifications for professions that are badly oversupplied?
Is there enough information and advice for students to make an informed decision about their education investment and its potential return?
Is there sufficient regulatory scrutiny of university course marketing?
Can students seek redress from universities that do not deliver what they promise, and move easily between education providers?”

Again, it gets back to the quality of advice on options: easy to say but a tough ask to deliver! However, The Commonwealth has just released a National Career Education Strategy: “Future ready”. A future issue of this newsletter will take a more in-depth look at what it involves. And another key issue is how useful the pathways between education sectors, institutions and qualifications are. It is often argued that these could be a lot better and more flexible too.

One thing he does point to is “the downgrading of vocational education, fuelled in part by scandals in the sector”, which have not helped. He believes “Federal and state governments should lift the profile and appeal of vocational education, and position it as a viable alternative to university.” In this issue of VDC has looked at this too.

Featherstone is not alone here. An article from the Grattan Institute in 2018 also argues against the bias against vocational education. In 2016, Group of Eight Chief Executive Vicki Thomson highlighted what was termed as ‘the broken state of the system’. In an article in she is reported as saying “the removal of caps on student numbers and the introduction of a ‘demand driven’ system, had led to unintended consequences.” Moreover she “also noted that the value of vocational study had also been eroded, with people forced to consider going to university ‘or be labelled a failure’.”

This article also argues that student debt is a growing problem, especially as degrees no longer guaranteed jobs. Data from the  2018 longitudinal Graduate Outcomes Survey for universities showed clearly that the short term full-time employment rate for undergraduates had dropped from around 83% for those graduating in 2007 to 67% for those in 2015. This means that “since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), it has taken graduates longer to successfully establish themselves in their careers.” More happily employment outcomes seem to turn around for these graduates after three years.

The Grattan Institute article argues that the challenge “is to devise a tertiary education policy that avoids formal caps on enrolments without creating incentives for oversupply.” Developing funding approaches reflective of a more unified tertiary sector may be a way forward. That has certainly been suggested by some.