Opinion | A university degree is no longer enough

TOUGHER: Many ads list tertiary qualifications as desirable for roles that once would have been secured through on-the-job training.
TOUGHER: Many ads list tertiary qualifications as desirable for roles that once would have been secured through on-the-job training.

Once upon a time, it was common for people to leave school, join a company, work their way up through the ranks and eventually retire with a pension.

You could build a good, well-paying career that secured your future without academic excellence or a particular affinity for university study.

In 1970, less than 200,000 Australians attended university across the country and there were 239 males for every 100 females enrolled. It was a pathway undertaken at an elite level, usually with a very specific career outcome in mind, such as becoming a doctor or a lawyer.

Now, almost 50 years later, we have more than 1.2 million students enrolled at university. Quite often it’s considered a place to go to “find yourself” and define your career path as you go. The gender split has also swung in the favour of women, with about 100 females to every 80 males admitted.

Many students enrol with a plan in mind, but by the end of their first year they’ve decided to change direction.

I am no exception. I enrolled in university with a plan to undertake an arts degree, to be followed by a diploma of education that would enable me to become a history/English teacher. My parents are both retired teachers, so this made sense to me.

By the end of first year, I had discovered that career options extended beyond teacher, lawyer, doctor or nurse and there was actually a whole wide world out there waiting to be discovered.

I took up archaeology on a whim and fell in love with it, ending up doing a double major in ancient archaeology and medieval/early modern history, with the lofty view of working at a famous auction house like Sotheby’s.

Goals change for many reasons, but university allowed me to open my eyes to the spectrum of opportunities.

As a career development practitioner, I see countless job advertisements every week. Many of them seek tertiary qualifications for roles that previously would have been attained through on-the-job training.

It is also becoming increasingly obvious that there is a ceiling for the professional development of those without tertiary qualifications: once we hit a certain level, a degree becomes a requirement.

However, at the entry level (not just graduate roles), the market is becoming increasingly competitive – not just because of growing tertiary expectations, but the inclusion of industry experience in the criteria.

A university degree, it would seem, is no longer considered enough.

I think we forget that universities themselves are businesses and are directed by market needs. Having worked with a number of executives in this space over the years, it has been fascinating to learn how industry partnerships feature in the strategic planning process of universities.

Engaging with these industry partners to understand what they are looking for in their staff (current and future) has generated curricula development across a number of areas including occupational health and safety, human resources and business management to name a few.

Universities research the desirable industry educational foci, speak to their connections and create courses tailored to meet industry needs to then sell to these companies and anyone who wants to work for them. These courses are often sold as short courses that can then act as stepping stones into longer bachelor and postgraduate programs.

It has been rewarding to see more and more universities revert to the influence of the technical colleges of old, with an increasing number of institutions including practical work placements as part of their core study program.

This is creating a gulf between the students who graduate with these placements under their belt and those who graduate from universities without such offerings.

The need to investigate university curriculum structure prior to enrolment is critical – you need to think about your end game before you even enrol in your course.

However, I am left to wonder, what happens to those of us who are smart, good problem solvers – even innovative – but don’t fit the mould of academic study?

How do these valuable employees find a rewarding career structure?

In America they are labelled as being “learning disabled” and are grouped with disability services. Surely, difference isn’t always “disabled”?

Zoë Wundenberg is a careers writer, counsellor and coach at impressability.com.au

You need to think about your end game before you even enrol.