Australians are attaining more higher degrees than ever before, so what is driving them away from university roles?

More Australians are attaining higher degrees than ever before, but diverse pressures are driving them away from traditional university roles and instead toward industry and business.

The ‘ivory tower’ academic is a cultural stereotype that is quickly losing relevance: higher degree education is less elitist, more diverse, and more closely entwined with government, community organisations, industry and business than ever.

We know higher education, in general, is expanding and becoming more common. Projections of future education suggest that over a billion people will achieve a post-secondary level of education by 2030.

As access to education increases and new segments of the population are able to participate, higher degree education, too, is becoming steadily more common and more diverse. We’re seeing more tertiary students, creating an academic environment more diverse in culture, sex, racial and ethnic background, ability, socio-economic strata, and age among other metrics.

This applies to postgraduate education as well. In Australia’s most recent census, we saw that postgraduate degree attainment had jumped from 631,000 in 2011 to 921,000 in 2016, a giant 46% increase. Reports show that we are also seeing an increase in part time and mature-aged students across multiple levels of tertiary study, with the ABC reporting that 40% of students at university are now 25 or older.

At the same time, the way we get our education is also changing. Although distance education is nothing new, a greater number of students than ever before are taking advantage of developments in technology to access online courses at a distance. It is predicted that as the demand for higher education expands, technological solutions will step in to bridge gaps left in the traditional bricks-and-mortar university experience.

It is not just the scope and segments of the population enrolled in higher degree education that is changing. The career progression of a doctoral candidate used to be predicated upon a role in academia, and the doctoral programs of many universities still reflect this. They prepare students for a future as an academic: a post-doctoral fellowship, then perhaps a permanent post. However, this isn’t necessarily the most likely outcome for the modern higher degree student.

As the number of people attaining higher degrees is rising, the opportunity for stable, secure work for them in academia isn’t just failing to expand alongside this growth—it’s actually diminishing.

The Grattan Institute reported in Mapping Australian higher education 2018 that temporary academic jobs have grown more common, leaving academics to feel disheartened by the pressures of low incomes and job insecurity.

Although these kinds of casual roles are unpredictable and difficult for academic staff to manage, not to mention being considered exploitative by researchers, there’s no indication that they’ll become any less common going forward. Instead, it seems we’re looking at the new experience of academia. A large percentage of university funding relies upon student enrolment, and casual contracts for staff are now preferred by universities because non-permanent teaching staff as a workforce are more flexible and sensitive to the demand created by fluctuating enrolment rates.

It is not just researchers themselves, either. Our universities are also racing to engage with industry more broadly. For better or for worse, we’ve been seeing less research aimed at producing knowledge for its own sake, and more research influenced by commercial outcomes and return of investment and value for money. ARC funding strategy encourages collaboration between university-based research programs and industry and other partnerships, and some universities now even offer additional professional or business training as part of an expanded PhD program in the expectation of such a “hybrid” career trajectory.

In light of all of this, it’s not surprising that instead of a purely university-based academic career, sixty per cent (and rising!) of people who complete their doctoral program will go on to work outside of academia, whether it be for government, business or NGOs. It is increasingly apparent that, although they need to be well-prepared for the attendant cultural shift, the rewards for those finishing their higher degrees is significantly greater off the beaten path, and outside the ivory tower.

About the Author

Pauline Opie is HDR Product Advisor for DCA’s ResearchMaster division. Pauline has over fifteen years’ experience in post graduate research management and related research management technology.

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