We must invest in the transformational power of higher education


Despite people’s perceptions of us, we economists are neither futurologists, nor historians. But we do see trends that we try to interpret, by applying objectivity where subjectivity abounds, and using the (rather few) tools we have developed to address (very many) major social problems. Today’s university graduates are entering a highly complex and uncertain world. How can we ensure our students can cope with ambiguity and thrive in diversity?


I entered university in 1988. Ireland, my country of origin, was in deep recession at the time, with unemployment rates nearing 20% and even above that for young people. But we had the release valve of emigration, an all too common pathway for generations of Irish people. The expectation was that we would graduate and then leave the country. We accepted that, but on the basis that it was a world in which a graduate from a good university would find a home and a career, build a life and a way through that life. And sometimes we would return home.


Today’s university students face the challenge of ambiguity. They have more options on many fronts, but face a world that is closing in around them. They have accepted that they will perhaps have more than one career, and that they may be training for a type of work that could be jilted out of existence at any point by the forces of globalisation and technology.


They do not know what the return on their education will be. In many countries, they will graduate with debt, and face the challenge of home ownership in the cities where the jobs are. They will work longer hours, for more years. And they also face more competition: previously developing education markets, predominantly in Asia, have now matured and are producing graduates of high calibre. In fact the supply of graduates has never been larger.


But more than anything else, the world is no longer their oyster. What are the countries with high demand for skills to which they may have looked to build their first career? The United States? Are they as welcome now with the “America First” banner? The United Kingdom? A “Brexit Britain” is unlikely to be as open a labour market as before. My adopted country of Australia? Well, even here a major reform of skilled migrant visas is under way.


The children starting university today began school at the turn of the millennium, and those starting school today will reach high school around 2025 and university by 2030. For these generations of students, it is difficult to imagine how things may evolve, even more so for the 2030 university entrants. My feeling is that we are not going to see a strong reversal of trends in geo-political terms. And although the rise of economic nationalism will likely be tempered by the political openness of the last 50 years, this will still leave a world that is smaller, and less receptive, and with more divide and more uncertainty.


In this context, as an academic, how can what we teach, how we teach, and how we engage with our students help offset some of these new risks facing our students–now and in the future? Can we ensure that our students will cope with ambiguity and thrive in diversity?

A greater appreciation for breadth, for experiential learning, for greater matching of education to the employment world are just some of the means by which institutions the world over are looking to better prepare today’s graduates, and rightly so.


But ensuring that students have access to the experiences that will leave them in better shape for their future life is just part of what goes into building better “supply”.


In my view, the greatest shift we will see is institutions taking a long-term stake in their students’ futures. If we believe in the transformational power of higher education, we should, as providers, be willing to invest in that future–graduates supported to understand and navigate the post-graduation trajectories that their developing expertise and capabilities afford. Lifelong learning should not be based on returningto education but rather never quite stopping education.


This must begin when a student registers: investing more in their pathways across their time at the institution. And while they are students, embracing a new model of what learning is–for example giving their time as volunteers. And this investment must continue as graduates enter the job market, ensuring that they see their university as being the hub around which their life and career evolve.


In what might indeed be a new world order–narrower, closed in–we, as education providers, must ensure that our individual and collective investment in education is as transformative as possible.


OECD (2017), OECD Skills Outlook 2017: Skills and Global Value Chains, OECD Publishing, Paris


OECD Forum 2017 issues

OECD work on education

OECD Higher Education Programme

OECD work on skills


Colm Harmon
Head of the School of Economics, University of Sydney

© OECD Yearbook


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