Dead loss degrees and the importance of disruption

Why we need to future-proof our education.

It’s a bright Sunday morning, and I’m at university. It’s the University of Western Australia’s annual open day, making today busier than most weekends.

I’m not in the Law Library like I usually am – I’m standing to the side of a lecture theatre in a group of first and second years, watching the end of the Law School panel discussion for future students. We’ve all been recruited to perform in a demonstration witness examination- the Dean of Students’ attempt to make spoken advocacy less scary to a room of mostly seventeen year olds. It’s a hard task.

The panel, led by Dean of School Natalie Skead, prompts for questions. One young attendee in the theatre raises his hand, waiting patiently to have his question answered. He’s sitting, flanked by his parents and clutching a stack of pamphlets and brochures with a free canvas bag on his shoulder. Six years ago, I think, I was in the same place.

Open days offered some small respite from the petrifying experience of WACE exams; they confirmed that there is a world beyond the microcosm of high school, full with possibility and potential. Ah, sweet innocence.

The panel finally makes their way around to the boy in the centre. Natalie asks him to speak, and he does so with as much nervous authority that a teenager can muster:

‘Um… how do you think a law degree… and I guess, law as a job… is going to change in the future? How do we know that computers… y’know… aren’t going to take over everything?’

‘That’s a very difficult question’, Natalie responds.

It’s also a very good question. With the legal profession as nebulous and ever changing as ever, it is more important than ever to future-proof. This seems like an oxymoron for an industry where technological advancement and integration are historically taboo; where the pen has remained mightier than the screen, and ink still persists against keyboard.

It’s hard to imagine some of the old guard of lawyers, born and bred by paper and pen and the traditional way to go about things, pushing boundaries with their preparation. However, firms are beginning to adopt hi-tech solutions to old-school challenges. Industries are forced to reshape their industrial and social landscapes, attempting to keep pace with digital technology’s rapid assimilation into the workplace.

The jobs we thought were waiting at the end of the tunnel of textbooks are obsolete

This is a new age of professionalism that we- HECS-debted tertiary education students- find ourselves faced with. We graduate from courses in dramatic robes and tassle-topped hats, only to find that the knowledge we’ve been taught throughout three, four, five years of study has become irrelevant.

The jobs we thought were waiting at the end of the tunnel of textbooks are obsolete, the skills we painstakingly learnt and memorised made redundant by a computer or piece of code. Yes, we should be keeping abreast of the trends and technologies which may impact our future career; we are millennials after all.

But, universities and vocational institutions must also take some sort of steps towards ‘future-proofing’ their degrees- and by extension, their students.

It is no surprise that Australian universities are ranked last by the OECD when considering their ability to work collaboratively with industry to promote innovation. Vocational institutions, by their very nature, have been ahead of the curve on this for years. It is just more traditionalist universities who refuse to budge on the stereotype of receiving a ‘high education’, devoid of workplace relevance and inapplicable to the real world.

However, employers’ demands are changing; less value is placed on traditional qualifications, with more importance placed on softer skills such as problem solving, teamwork and communication. Graduates should be more work-ready, degrees should be more flexible, and course content should be reflective of commercial standards. Both the information taught, and the method of delivery for this information, has to be modified.

Those which are able to disrupt the traditional model of education are those which tend to flourish. We must remember that universities are businesses; they fail to meet this changing demand, and they become as obsolete as the degrees they offer. Some Australian institutions are already taking this message on board.

The University of Sydney has a Digital Disruption Research Group, where academic colleagues and industry professions discuss how technology continues to interrupt the established status quo of education and social interaction. Deakin, along with a multitude of others, offers full degrees through MOOCs – massive open online courses, where people around the world can affordably and flexibly educate themselves.

International e-learning hubs such as the University of Phoenix have over 500,000 enrolled students, offering an accredited, American college education to those who may not usually be able to access one.

Disruption allows for greater access to education

Of course, this gross of a departure from the status quo will always attract some sort of cynicism. Where is the campus, the classrooms and labs? Where do you interact with other students? How are you meant to experience university when it doesn’t have a physical presence, or where technology takes paramount priority?

I value my experience with campus culture higher than almost anything else at university, and have advocated for students to be as involved with campus culture as possible. However, disruption allows for greater access to education; it allows for archaic business models to change their modus operandi, and it allows for educational boundaries to be pushed. Provided that this advancement is not to the detriment of all else, this can only be a good thing.

The boy at the centre of the lecture theatre has his question answered by Natalie, and then files out with the masses. By the time he graduates university, as a law student or otherwise, the professional world may have completely changed again. All I can hope is that he is as future proofed as possible.

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