Speaking to Accountants Daily, Deakin University Pro Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dineli Mather said that despite a rapidly evolving workplace meaning that subjects learned during an undergraduate course could be rendered obsolete by the time a graduate entered the workplace, other skills learned along the way were crucial to maintaining employability.
“Professional work is evolving very rapidly and professionals have to have a mindset and the ability to evolve. What that means is when you do a university degree, it is still fine to study a discipline but what you take away are things like critical thinking, ability to make evidence-based decisions, ability to problem solve, and those skills are developed in a discipline context,” said Professor Mather.
“The most important skill that you take into the workplace is the ability to learn new things.
“[For example], if you study IT and want to work in IT, the programming language you learn would be obsolete or would be fading out by the time you get out so the most important thing is you got those first principles and apply that to build new knowledge,” she added.
“The longevity of those sorts of transferable skills is what holds a university degree apart.”
Professor Mather’s comments come as businesses are losing faith in Australian universities to produce graduates who are “job ready”.
The accounting industry has been calling for a change in approach to accounting degrees, as major universities – including Macquarie University and UNSW – are finding that typical undergraduate courses are not preparing students for the realities of the accounting profession.
While Professor Mather conceded that universities cannot cater to every demand from the workplace, she said education providers regularly consult with the industry to ensure critical skills are not left out.
“We have an annual review of every course and part of that process is looking at graduate outcomes from that course, the intake into the course, the marks. We also have advisory boards for every study area consisting of employers who actually look at the curriculum and confirm that it is relevant and not missing anything critical,” said Professor Mather.
“Obviously, you can’t have everything out there but it is around making sure that the current core set of skills that an accountant needs are incorporated into the degree.
“We also have a major course review every five years where there’s an expectation that we will take it apart and build it up again with some major changes whereas the annual review is around continuous quality improvement.”
The right intake
Professor Mather also hit back at suggestions that universities were simply catering to international students, while neglecting the needs of the local market.
“The higher education market will crash without international students and that’s globally, not just here in Australia,” she said.
“At the end of the day we can’t have universities funded 100 per cent from the government and ultimately in a country like Australia, we have our Year 12 school leaver cohort flat lining and there is no growth there.”
She believes critics should consider the benefits of a diversified student population and the merits it will bring in the long run.
“There are also a proportion of those graduates who then either work in Australia because they have a skill in a skill-shortage area such as accounting but also if they go back home, they could be your supplier or they could be your client. It is a globalised world and I think the best thing we can do to make Australia competitive globally is to have international graduates coming in and going back home so they have some sort of loyalty to Australia, and they know how to do business here,” she added.
“I think it is very short-sighted and very old fashioned to feel the need to protect jobs here. You want diversity in your workplace because your markets are diverse, your markets are global and your workforce needs to represent that.
“For our domestic students, the best thing we can do to prepare them for a globally connected world is to put them in a classroom with students from all kinds of different countries.”