Universities in need of validatory data - a snapshot view of the GEN Conference


‘Without data, you are just another person with an opinion’. These were the challenging words of Dr Andreas Schleicher at the end of his keynote address to the ACU’s Graduate Employment Network conference, co-hosted in Auckland with Universities New Zealand from 11–13 July 2013.

The theme of the conference - Exploring the value of higher education to the economy’ - brought together an international mix of vice-chancellors, career development professionals, employers, politicians and student leaders to consider whether today’s universities are fit for purpose. Closely related issues were also tackled, such as whether universities are producing employable graduates, whether the contribution of higher education to the economy is recognised, and whether the value of mobility and collaboration (especially between higher education and industry, and between TVET and the HE sector) is properly exploited.

Whilst several strong messages arose from the conference, Dr Schleicher’s challenge - the need for data - proved to be the conference’s leitmotif. It was argued that, without data, universities are hard-pressed to answer the aforementioned questions affirmatively and thus prove that they are producing employable graduates who are making a worthwhile contribution to society, whose earning potential has been enhanced, who are better able to analyse and critique the status quo, and who contribute to economic growth and a more stable society.

He added that without data, it is harder to prove the link between students’ employability and their experience of engagement with society or experience gained on internships whilst at university. It is also harder to establish a nexus between studying in a research-led teaching environment and developing a sense of innovation.

The effects of a data-led approach to the validation of universities could also have significant consequences for how institutions are run as, without data, it is harder for those working in career development services to demonstrate exactly how valuable their work is. Consequently, in many universities they are viewed as ‘nice to have’ rather than essential to core business. Although professionals in this field are working at the interception of graduate employability, civic engagement and entrepreneurship education, they are an often under-utilised resource.

In addition to Dr Schleicher, other illustrious speakers included the New Zealand Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment, Honourable Steven Joyce; Professor Roy Crawford (Chair of Universities NZ and Vice-Chancellor, University of Waikato); Professor Rajesh Chandra (Vice-Chancellor, University of the South Pacific); Thamsanqa Maqubela (CEO of the South African Graduates Development Association); Vicki Thomson (Executive Director, Australian Technology Network of Universities); Dr Rick Ede (Chief Executive, Unitec Institute of Technology, Auckland); and a dynamic cross-section of workshop session presenters.

Of the multitude of other messages, questions, challenges – and not to forget, solutions – two more struck a particular chord. First, an SME employer drew attention to her perception that the outside world in general finds universities too hard to navigate. With no obvious ‘front door’ this makes it hard for employers to enter and start establishing the connections that could be mutually beneficial.

The second poignant point centred on whether universities are paying sufficient heed to preparing students for life (and not just for jobs) and for life-long learning? In a global context in which flexibility is key, the capacity to continue learning is essential, as was so succinctly captured in Eric Hoffer’s words, offered to us by the final speaker, Rick Ede: ‘In times of change, learners inherit the earth while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists’.

Last modified on 05/01/2016
Tags: data, students, impact, life-long learning

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