Higher Education Workforce of the Future, revisited

The following is my updated paper on the Higher Education Workforce of the Future report, which was just presented at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne for #TASA2016.


On the eve of the 2015 Christmas holidays, it was announced that 100 academic positions and 200 professional positions at a sandstone university in Western Australia were to be cut. A statement issued by the Vice Chancellor (VC) explained that the cuts were in response to a “budget challenge” and the need to confront financial challenges head on by “changing how the university operates”. Now, as I write these words, a similar announcement has been released by another nearby university, where 100-150 academics are expected to lose their positions. These cuts are also attributed to budget pressures, though this VC also insists that their university “remains in a sound economic position”.


These events are linked by a joint statement, subtitled Embracing Future Opportunities, which was issued by four Western Australian VCs and, presumably, sent to all university staff in April 2016. Along with presenting an overview of the economic importance of the university sector to the state and the nation, the two page statement observed that: “While our past is something to be proud of… global competitiveness, changing environments and disruptive technology applies to our sector as much as any other. It’s not an individual university issue, it’s a global higher education issue”. In referring to these pressures and the responses that they call for, the VCs referred to a single report:

Recently, Pricewaterhouse Coopers [PwC] consulted with 340 stakeholders across the country and found that the University workforce of the future will need to be increasingly agile and flexible; that we will need to continuously and proactively develop the technical and professional capacity of our staff; and will need to enable greater role specialisation.


What they are referring to is The Australian Higher Education Workforce of the Future (PwC 2016). This same report featured heavily at a summit of the Western Australian VCs, which was held a few months later and was organised by the Committee for Economic Development in Australia (CEDA). The event (which I was lucky enough to receive free tickets to) was held in a beautiful hotel ballroom and included fine steaks and wine at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. While everyone I spoke to celebrated the event as an excellent networking opportunity, I met no other academics that day (aside from those in the managerial elite). This may have been because the event was extremely expensive ($160 for CEDA members and over $200 for none-members), received little advertising at the universities being represented (no academics I know were aware of it), and was held in the middle of a teaching week. The report has also featured heavily in the open forums[1] that are held by the VC at my own university, which tend to be attended by high numbers of academic staff – and one can assume that, as each of the W.A. VCs have endorsed the report, the same might be said of similar forums at other universities. I here present some analysis of this high-flying report.


The point of my analysis is twofold: first – and with a specific focus on academics – I want to give a sense of how the key players in Australian higher education view the present and future university system (at the very least, this is crucial for anyone considering a future in academe). Second, I want to consider the assumptions, omissions, and controversies of the report from a sociological perspective, in order to both explain and critique the report.


Of particular interest is the idea, which occurs throughout the report, that the “traditional and change averse culture” of universities (i.e. academe) is “to the detriment of the future competitiveness of Australian universities” (39). This idea is contrasted with the insistence that universities must “foster a culture of continuous change and advancement”. According to the report, this proposed future culture of the workforce requires universities to “hardwire” the behaviour of their employees with skills and values that revolve around the “three key future workforce attributes” that PwC “believe all university workforces will need to exhibit”: agility and flexibility (which I call “flexigility”), professionalization, and specialisation (32).


The neoliberalism that suffuses the report is thus attended by the attempt to reimagine academe and its centrality within future universities – with the strategy being to preserve the symbolic clout of academe while gradually rewiring and replacing its innards with more flexigile bits. I contend that the PhD degree will likely be a primary target for effecting such changes, for it serves as a cultural rite of passage and means of boundary maintenance and gate keeping for academics; changing the PhD thus provides a way to, so to speak, “short circuit” and “rewire” academic culture.


Background and Reception

The Australian Higher Education Workforce of the Future was released in February 2016 by the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association (AHEIA) in association with the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Corporate (DVC) division of Universities Australia.[2] The AHEIA is the employer organisation for the nation’s higher education providers, and like any union its stated duty is to protect the interests of its members. As such, it is occasionally referred to as the “industrial arm of Universities Australia” by the National Tertiary Education Union of workers (NTEU). Universities Australia is the self-proclaimed “voice of Australian universities”, and their stated duty is to “represent Australian universities in the public interest”. While Universities Australia is not ostensibly designed to serve the interests of workers over employers or vice-versa, the fact that its membership is comprised of universities, which in turn are represented by VCs, makes it fair to say that Universities Australia is the voice for the organisational elite. As part of Universities Australia, the DVC supports the VCs in matters concerning administration, management and leadership. Thus, the report was commissioned by the corporate arm and so-called “industrial arm” of Universities Australia. Little wonder it was the only report mentioned in the VC joint statement described above.


The AHEIA and DVC group commissioned the report from Pricewaterhouse Coopers for A$350,000. The advertised purpose of PwC is to “help organisations and individuals create the values they’re looking for”, while also assisting in, as PwC say, “motivating and taking care of your key people”. This was reflected in the engagement process: PwC consulted with VCs, deputy-VCs and pro-VCs and their delegates, human resource directors and their delegates, and the heads of schools/Deans. PwC experts and “sector thought leaders” were also consulted, as were “broad sector stakeholders” such as ministerial and industry representatives. Students, targeted international universities, and employee representative groups like the NTEU were also included as university specific stakeholders. Notably, the NTEU (2016a) has been highly critical of PwC’s engagement process, with the national president publicly stating that: “PWC met once with the NTEU late last year, but our commentary and analysis based on, it must be agreed, considerable expertise is almost completely ignored”. Significantly, and without including their proxy representation by the NTEU and the unnamed employee representative groups, no academics outside of the organisational elite were consulted. This means that most of the academic workforce, and especially those most likely to be affected by the recommendations made by PwC to Australian universities, were excluded from the report. While PwC gave no explanation for this, the implication is that PwC (and, arguably, by extension, the AHEIA and Universities Australia) did not consider the namesake of the report to be “key people”.


The report was also rightly criticised for overlooking the growing body of research on the attitudes and experiences of academic staff. This oversight is surprising, as one of PwC’s (7) five “in-scope activities” was to “review of best practice and analysis of workforce data as well as researching of local and global workforce transformation trends”. If this review was undertaken in earnest, then there is no way that PwC could have missed the fact that the preeminent trends affecting the workforce pertain to the conditions and consequences of casualisation. Literature that accounts for these matters was cited throughout the report (e.g. Coates & Goedegebuure 2010; Grattan Institute 2014), with such literature in turn citing the more concerning research on precariatisation, which went unmentioned in the PwC report (e.g. Gottschalk & McEachern 2010; Kimber 2010; May et al 2013; Ryan et al 2013). While the NTEU claim to have pointed to all this during the engagement process, they were ignored. MoreoverAHEIA has commissioned reports on these very issues from other organisations (e.g. Andrews et al 2016) and many Universities Australia VCs have done the same (e.g. Percy et al 2008). Indeed, the PwC report was released with a statement from the AHEIA president and VC of Charles Stuart University, saying that the sector should ensure that “casual staff are not treated as a means to balance the budget but recognised as a core part of the academic community” – and yet the voices of this very core were not included and their well documented situations and concerns went unaddressed.


With all of these resources in mind, it is clear from the outset that PwC engaged in very selective reading during the review process and selective deafness during the consultation process. The result was a report that seemed to be, as an adjunct professor of higher education at RMIT claimed in The Australian (2016), “designed to feed back to university leaders just what they fed into it — that staffing policy was crucial to universities’ future and that staff had to be more flexible”. All this is to say that there is every indication that the report was not undertaken in good faith. While this feedback loop is unsurprising, given the partiality that PwC explicitly promises to its employers, it raises the question as to why the AHEIA and DVC saw fit to commission the report from PwC, rather than from any of the less explicitly partial experts that have been investigating the very same matters for years (of course, few experts have the brand power of PwC, which sits atop one of Victoria’s tallest towers). This is why the report, with its strategic top-down representations of reality and the ideal workforce of the future, provides an exemplary case study for sociological investigation into the university system.


The Higher Education Workforce of the Future

The purpose of the report, as stated by the AHEIA on their website, was to “put the spotlight on how to enable universities to compete in a globally competitive market”. With this goal in mind, the AHEIA put forward the following two questions to guide the research and analysis that PwC (2016: 6) would undertake: 1. “Which drivers of change will have the greatest impact on the Higher Education sector in the next 10-15 years?” 2. “What does this mean for how universities will need to structure their workforces in the future?” While the answers that are provided to these questions are both interesting, I am concerned with the proposals that are being made by PwC, and thus with question 2 and the second half of the report (PwC 2016: 30 – 41). In dealing with this question, PwC split the notion of “the workforce” into three dimensions (32):

  1. Capability, as in the “skills, capabilities, experience and behaviours required of university staff and leaders”, that is, what employees are expected to be able and willing to do.
  2. Structure, which pertains to the “design of new and existing roles”, that is, how they are to be employed.
  3. Engagement, which covers the “manner in which capability is matched to the workforce structure, through contract models, investment in development and the talent pipeline, as well as performance”, as in how they are to be managed. These three dimensions provide the framework for PwC’s three key workforce attributes.


The first attribute that PwC note as vital to the higher education workforce of the future is agility and flexibility. Given that PwC refer to these two qualities as a single attribute, and given that the distinction between them is not always clear, I refer to them using the portmanteau, flexigility. In respect to what they mean by themselves, “agility” presumably refers to the ability of a university or individual to quickly adapt to changes in the environment. The idea is that the supply of funding and the demand for services can shift suddenly, and universities need to be able to respond to this quickly. This speaks to the mitigation of risk, the maximisation of efficiency, and the pursuit of advantages. As we shall see, this translates to casualisation in practice: universities seek to reduce the limitations on hiring and firing, so that they can quickly shut down a position or replace a person with little notice. In a similar fashion, “flexibility” speaks to the ability for universities to alter the workload allocations and duties of their employees at short notice, such as by relocating someone who teaches unpopular units to another course or school, allocating them more administrative duties, or reducing their hours.


By making flexigility a value, precariousness is recast as the opportunity to develop human capital. Flexigile individuals are able to adapt and take advantage of new circumstances: to use their teaching skills from old courses to innovate new ones, to use their new found free-time to gain experience and establish links in other industries, to produce publications and become increasingly interdisciplinary. Taking this to its logical conclusion, the most excellently flexigile university would be one in which all employees can be relocated, casualised or simply removed from the pay role whenever they are not needed, with such needs and responses in turn being determined as quickly and efficiently as possible.


The next key attribute is professionalisation. The report (14) states that the “increased and continuous professionalisation of both staff and leadership as a lever to ensure the sustained relevance of capability and skill set of the university workforce is critical. This encompasses both continuous development of skills to deliver in current roles… as well as the acquisition of new domain expertise”. Someone who values professionalisation will be dedicated to keeping their skills up to date and to learning new things in anticipation of, and response to, new circumstances. This quality thus serves as the scaffolding for flexigility: the ideal employee will not only be willing to be relocated – they will ideally have the skills that are required for their new position or whole new job. While this can be cultivated through work-provided training, it can also be encouraged as a condition of precariousness and the imperative to be as competitive and flexigile as possible. It is worth noting that this implies a shift away the kind of academic excellence that comes from years of dedication to narrow scholarly pursuits. Rather, professionalisation encapsulates the old saying: “a Jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one”.


The third key attribute is specialisation. According to PwC (14), this involves “moving away from the 40/40/20 academic workload allocation model, and changing the ‘one size fits all’ expectation regarding research participation”. Significantly, this is tied to the moving away of universities from the role of being “‘the (paramount) custodians of knowledge’”. The idea here is that universities will need to differentiate themselves from other universities and higher education provides, and this move will require their employees to in turn become more specialised. For instance, along with being experts in their own academic field, a university teacher might also specialise in digital learning technologies and online education, or the gathering and analysis of data regarding learning outcomes.


The notions of “practitioner academics” and “para-academics” are also mentioned, with the idea here being that a teacher or researcher might only come in to teach or present at seminars a few times a year, spending most of their time in the field or working with external public or private organisations. On the one hand, this can go hand in hand with the organisational motivations behind flexigility, for it means that the employment relationship between staff and universities can be specified according to the requirement of such specialisations: a specialised teacher could be paid for a few hours to teach their own technical area of expertise, rather than for the whole semester, and the time that this frees up for professionalisation and the development of professional relations. On the other hand, this seems at odds with professionalisation, insofar that one notion requires the academic to develop a range of skills suited to a range of roles, while the other notion requires the academic to narrow down on a narrow skill set that can be used in a range of similar roles in a variety of contexts.


Without needing to overemphasise the point, for PwC make it clear that they are dealing in abstract guidelines that are open for interpretation, it is worth baring in mind that three attributes exist in a tension with each other, as well as with the established facts – which, to repeat, PwC overlooked and ignored. Still, just one example of how this tension is already playing out in Australian universities is provided by the fact that academics often teach in units that are outside of their own specialised academic area (e.g. a creative writer teaching advanced research methods, a tourism graduate teaching sociology). This is largely due to the informal casual employment processes that currently dominate most universities (May et al 2013).


Hence, seeing that:

  1. Increasing numbers of academics are casually employed for longer periods of time – which speaks to the emphasis on flexigility.
  2. Casual employees rarely receive skill reproduction security, vis-à-vis work-based training or compensation for external training – which speaks to (and undermines) professionalisation.
  3. The experience and expertise that academics already have are regularly overlooked – which speaks to (and undermines) specialisation.

It is clear that these attributes are already subject to significant issues within Australian universities. That they should be presented as the three necessary qualities that future academics will need to internalise, speaks to the neoliberal ethic of ongoing atomised competition that underpins the report (more on this soon).


PwC get around these tensions by emphasising that such attributes will be implemented and practiced in very different ways, depending on each university’s and university employee’s “value proposition”. As PwC state “we do not believe there is a ‘one size fits all’ approach to workforce reform in the sector” (36), rather “each university will have a unique response to these external drivers of change as they seek to differentiate their value proposition in what will become an increasingly diverse market” (41). This emphasis on differentiation reflects the insights of systems theory, whereby social systems react to a complex and disruptive environment through fragmentation and specialisation, and thus become more complex in turn.


For instance, growing competition requires universities to differentiate themselves through specialisation and the pursuit of long-term plans (i.e. deliberate differentiation); while being able to adapt to an increasingly disruptive environment (i.e. contingent differentiation). Deliberate differentiation is articulated in the report in terms of the strategic development of value propositions on the part of the organisation and specialisation on the part of the individual workers. Contingent differentiation is articulated in the report in terms of professionalisation and flexigility. The idea here is that, once the direction of the university is ascertained by its leaders, such agendas should be greeted with “communication and behaviours that comes from the top and are instilled in every layer of the workforce to ensure that ‘all staff are taken on the journey’”, with the goal being to create a cohort of staff that will “‘benefit from disruption and not be victims of it” (40).


Taking a step back and putting the report’s aforementioned issues with partiality and rigor aside for a moment, this emphasis on organisational differentiation presents a potential explanation for why the workforce was not deemed “in-scope” by PwC. Contrary to what its title suggests, the PwC report is less concerned with the work force per se, and more with a system of semi-privatised organisations trying to survive in a disruptive environment. In contrast, the aforementioned critiques are essentially ethnocentric, in that they directly pertain to the views and experiences of human beings – that is, to the actual workers that make up the workforce. As I have shown elsewhere, this is but one way of formulating and analysing a social system, for some systems-theoretical approaches (e.g. Aakvaag 2015; Luhmann 1995; Rempel 1996) are not concerned with people per se, but with the abstract subjects of systems and their operative functions (e.g. the operative functions of the elite and students is as leaders and income/product respectively). From this perspective (which is abundantly clear throughout the report), people are the occupants of constituent parts of the greater apparatus, the primary and impersonal purpose of which is to survive. It is an unpleasant perspective, but it is not without its own ostensibly consistent logic and advocates. Of course, the fact that PwC make no explicit claim to such a disinterested theoretical perspectives means that this explanation no more than conjecture, while its contrast to the clearly partial ethos of PwC makes it an inadequate one at that. After all, even with its explicit concern for differentiation and complexity, the report and the future university that it presents is suffused with the homogenising spirit of neoliberalism (image 1):



Image 1: PwC (2016: 37): “Figure 4: Workforce interventions – An example university”


On Change and Tradition

To some, many of the recommendations made in this hypothetical university are at oddes with the values and vocational aspirations popularly associated with academe. For instance, in consulting their selected stakeholders, PwC identified three key themes as the “hurdles university leaders will need to overcome as they embark on implementation of these workforce reforms” (39). These were: industrial limitations, as in the existing enterprise agreements which, as the interviewees put it, “limit our flexibility and ‘protect’ our staff from change, no matter how inevitable it may be” and “limit our ability to articulate and enforce performance expectations” (i.e. employment securities that hinder flexigility). Lack of alignment between university and people priorities, which, while its meaning was far from clear in the report, seems to concern the segmentation and relative-autonomy of university departments (i.e. the internal conflicts of the “multiversity”). While report does little to clarify the hurdle to which I now turn, traditional and change averse culture, it describes it as follows (39):

University cultures have withstood the test of time, supported by the high degree of academic freedom inherent in the sector. However, a number of university leaders told us that cultural limitations are one of the most significant barriers to responding to, and anticipating, changes impacting the sector, to the detriment of the future competitiveness of Australian universities. In some respects, many in the sector are comfortable and do not believe that a burning platform exists which necessitates change. Student union representatives also supported the view that a top heavy governance culture is detrimental to innovation in teaching and research.

The sector, of course, is the university system (rather than higher education in general) while the culture, broadly speaking, is academe. While the term is never used in the report, it is clear that, at least as many academics are concerned, the “elements of contemporary managerial practices” are neoliberal ones (Archer 2008; Ball 2012; Callinicos 2006; Connell 2015; Gill 2010; Ward 2012). Such resistance is therefore not surprising, for academic freedom and institutional autonomy are often popularly seen and cited as fundamental to modern Western universities (Bleiklie 1998; Collini 2012) including those in Australia (Connell 2015; Hill 2012). Put bluntly, universities and academics have long been like pods and peas: they are comparable to sportsmanship and the parameters of any given sport, or to religious dispositions and rituals and the organisation and continuity of the church. University campuses are the symbolic and literal home of the academic profession, which university managers and the media alike have in turn capitalised on as a popular and prestigious cultural icon. What these relations have in common are the link between the ideal and sacred and the profane and pragmatic. Little wonder that those neoliberal elements of contemporary managerial practices suggestions (which have been critiqued for holding nothing sacred – save perhaps for revenue) are so often resisted and received by academics as though they were profanities.


But the report presents no reflection on this front, and instead presents what are ostensibly deemed to be unavoidable facts. The ideological thrust of the report is to frame the drivers of change like economic and technological forces of nature, occurring within the nigh-uncontrollable external environment of global knowledge economies. In the face of such conditions change is not just critical to survival, but a moral imperative for anyone who cares about the future (and therefore present/pressing) needs of their society – which is in turn assessed-in/reduced-to economic terms of growth and the mitigation/exploitation of risks. Within this narrative, the agents of change, as in the university and industry leaders and stakeholders, are the sober stewards of the future, while those who question such narratives are the impediments to progress. Thus (still according to this narrative): it is not the changes proposed that are being resisted, nor is it the people proposing such changes or the reasons they give for doing so; nor is not a matter of the rejection of a particular ideology narrative, or of resistance to an increasingly pervasive and reductive ideology; it is especially not a matter of groups operating in their own interest, whereby the proposed changes have clear winners and losers. Rather, according to a number of VCs consulted in the report, it is a matter of overcoming a change-averse culture in the interest of a “historically change resistant sector,” with such “cultural limitations” being “one of the most significant barriers to responding to, and anticipating, changes impacting the sector, to the detriment of the future competitiveness of Australian universities” (39).


In reality, the notion of academic autonomy and the self-determination of the disciplines engenders the potential for continuity as well as change, and thereby covers both the preservation of traditions and the pursuit of innovation. Indeed, the literature on neoliberalism that I have cited – literature that have been penned by academics who critique both tradition and change – makes it abundantly clear that the issue is not some general aversion to change itself, but rather a particular aversion (or rather, resistance) to reforms that undermine autonomy through managerialism and culture through economic rationalism. Evidently, this aversion extends to the reforms that are presented in the report, as well as the strategies used by PwC in its production. It is thus an oversimplification for PwC to reduce the issue to some generalised and non-descript form of cultural conservatism, especially when the significant conditions and consequences of the changes proposed and the ongoing discussions that surround them are not addressed. To be sure, there may well be culturally distinctive conservative elements in Australian universities: there is most certainly a historically rich culture that distinguishes universities and academics from other institutions and professions. However, the literature on the prevailing trends in higher education and the academic workforce gives good reason to suppose that the hurdle noted by PwC is less a technical issue pertaining to reform (i.e. “how can we get academics to be reasonable?”), but the reflection of differing narratives and interests within the multiversity.


In saying all this, my point is simply that, along with being far from impartial in its research and engagement process, the report is also embedded in a constellation of narratives and rationales that are heavily pregnant with economic and moral prerogatives – as Forsyth (2014: 2 emphasis in original) observes in her history of the Australian university system: “Shifts in ideas about universities in Australia have not been achieved in a disinterested or objective manner: every new idea about tertiary education represents someone’s interest”. In this respect, it can be helpful to consider an excerpt from the report pertaining to flexigility alongside another response issued by the NTEU:

While universities are still responsive to both government and the public, they are forced to run more like a business. This includes achieving efficiencies, higher productivity, competitiveness, flexibility and agility. Like business, they need to respond faster, minimise overheads and change strategy and direction in response to markets, trends and opportunities. (PWC 2016: 22)

The dangerous subtext of the report for casual and sessional academics is that the report normalises casual employment through the coded language of ‘contract diversity’… The report wilfully side steps a decade of discrete and recurrent academic research into university staffing attitudes, which has persistently highlighted insecurity of employment as the leading issue amongst university staff… (NTEU 2016b).


Considering the Hypothetical

If we put all this aside, however, and take seriously the narrative presented by PwC, then the question arises: what to do about this troublesome traditional and change averse culture? The answer depends on how we conceptualise and locate this culture. If we keep in mind the contemporary obsession with being strategic in all things, it seems that the changers are not concerned with “academe” per se (for the notion is a marketable treasure chest of symbolic capital), but rather with troublesome academic dispositions. Here we can take a cue from PwC and focus first on the thought-leaders, as in those seasoned academics of the professoriate, who have enough status and are secure enough in their employment to be of consequence to management. However, much of this Old Guard of the Ivory Tower are due to retire or accept redundancy within the 10-15 year timeline presented by the report, and so, at least in terms of employment, cannot really be counted amongst the future workforce with which PwC is concerned. Another possibility is to focus on the younger generation of current and aspiring academic, for the report’s focus on structure and engagement indicates an interest in how the academic workforce develops and transmits it norms and values. In other words, if the universities of today are to successfully transition into the future university envisioned by PwC, then they must address intergenerational transmission, and thus the institutional links between the old and the new. The Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) is one such link.


The PhD became the conventional academic qualification and “rite of passage” in Australian universities throughout the second-half of the 20th century (Dobson 2012; Fanghanel 2012). PhD candidates works under the supervision of more senior academic, and this involves developing an understanding pertaining to very narrow (and not necessarily flexigile) knowledge and skillsets. This period has been identified as a primary site of academic socialisation, as the candidate is encouraged to become more engaged with and develop networks within the broader academic community, which involves learning to “fit-in” (Austin 2002; Bess 1978; Gardner 2008; Gerholm 1990; Raineri 2013). The degree is also a primary entry point into university teaching, and thus into a position of academic employment and relative authority and prestige (Probert 2014). It is due to this functionality and attractiveness that the PhD has been identified as being central to drawing and preparing the future “stewards of the discipline”, as in people who will maintain and refine the knowledge of their discipline as well as the values and expectations of academic rigour and integrity (Golde & Walker 2006; Parry 2007). In this admittedly idealistic respect, an academic’s duty is not just to their organisation or career, but also to academe and their discipline – things that cannot be wholly accounted for or easily defended when reduced to matters of economic measurement and viability.


And so there is good reason that the degree is widely viewed as an apprenticeship for an academic career and important step toward “becoming an academic” (Hughes & Tight 2013; Leonard et al 2007; McAlpine 2012; Parry 2007) – even when that very career and the ideas that underpin it are becoming out-dated (Coates & Goedegebuure 2010; Taylor 2011). More importantly to the current discussion, the PhD degree is widely considered to be central to the production of future academics and, by extension, the reproduction of the academic workforce. It is here worth quoting Collini (2012: 8) at length, for he describes the degree as a “peculiar characteristic” that makes it hard for “other forces in society” to exert control over universities (on this point Collini and PwC are in agreement):


Universities are among the very few institutions whose rationale includes selecting and shaping their own future staff. Schools educate everyone: it is not a distinctive part of their remit to form and prepare future school-teachers. Companies recruit new staff and train them in the appropriate techniques, but this is a secondary task, not part of their primary rationale, which is to produce goods and services and make a profit. By contrast, the forming of future scholars and scientists is not just an instrumental necessity for universities, but intrinsic to their character. Educating someone to pursue the open-ended search for deeper understanding has to be a kind of preparation for autonomy. This makes it unusually difficult for those outside universities to specify how this professional preparation should be carried out, and so the academic profession – by its very nature rather than as a pathological form of self-interest – will be bound to appear self-absorbed as well as self-recruiting in a way in which most other social organizations will not.


The emphasis here is thus on distinctions, with the university being a distinctive system insofar that it maintains a way of recruiting and preparing its own distinctive workforce. Indeed, owing both to its famous difficulty and infamous rates of attrition, the PhD can be described as the means of institutionalised “boundary maintenance” for academe vis-à-vis the “gatekeeping” of academics.


To be fair, the PwC report does not explicitly identify this institutional rite of passage as a cultural limitation, save for questioning its necessity, vis-à-vis the “academic pipeline” (PwC 2016: 35):

Academic pipeline: in a faster, more responsive university where industry practice is valued, traditional academic pre-service (e.g. the decade required to prepare an individual for an academic career) risks becoming less relevant. Universities may change the role requirements of academics and will begin to consider whether the PhD is necessary (noting the current requirements for PhDs, or equivalent, teaching Masters and above students) and what might be suitable for academics of the future.

The example university foreshadows conditions that do not bode well for the degree. For instance, while academic autonomy is the cornerstone of the degree (particularly in the Arts and Social Sciences, in which candidates are more likely to develop their own thesis and work alone), this may have to take a back seat depending on how great an emphasis is placed on collaboration with external stakeholders, as well as future prevalence and structure of alternative PhDs, such as the industrial/professional PhD (Fink 2006; Harman 2010; Mangematin 2000). Perhaps more pressingly, there is a clear tension at play between, on the one hand, the emphasis Collini places on both the PhD and the university being presided over by academics (with the university seeming self-absorbed and self-recruiting as a result), and, on the other hand, the call in the report for universities to employ non-academic leaders, partners from industry, and greater numbers of non-academic professional staff.


What I am implying here is that one solution to the resistance of academics to the restructuring of higher education and the rewiring of the workforce is to reform and decentralise the PhD: make it more industry focussed and less restricted to university campuses, make candidates and supervisors more accountable to management and stakeholders, make it even less of an expected credential for entry into the organisational elite (which can include the management of schools and research departments), and so on. While the voicing of such a strategy may to some seem tantamount to heresy, The Higher Education Workforce of the Future gives good reason to believe that such strategies are already on the table.


*I will add a reference list, further links and clean up the bottom-end of the analysis when I return to Perth*



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2 Responses to Higher Education Workforce of the Future, revisited

  1. Ian Argall says:

    .. and you are???

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