Arvanitakis and Winchester on education: Reflecting on graduate attributes

| September 18, 2021

Last month Monash University’s new Centre for Youth Policy and Education Practice released a report that pointed to the “the breakdown of a long-held assumption that higher education qualifications will lead to desirable and secure work.”

The authors noted that higher education participation rates have risen by 41 percent in the past decade while simultaneously, the “earning premium” of a bachelor’s degree decreased from 39 percent in 2005 to 27 percent by 2018.

One of the authors, Professor Lucas Walsh (who I should mention for transparency is a long-time collaborator) noted that higher education has long involved an “opportunity bargain.” That is, high school graduates put off full-time work to gain qualifications that will lead to “a fulfilling career of one’s choice” and be appropriately compensated.

The report found, however, that over the last two decades this bargain has started breaking down placing young Australians in a position of “prolonged disruption” that has been aggravated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In other words, the value of higher education in launching young Australians into the career of their choice is being eroded. Rather than celebrating the increase in higher education participation, many are now questioning its value

With such striking evidence, it is not surprising that the Education Minister, Alan Tudge, has continued his predecessor’s push towards ‘employability’ of higher education which he argues will be achieved by increasing the level of STEM-based skills. In our conversation with students, this issue of ‘employability’ is never far from their decision-making – even pursuing degrees they have no interest in because they have been told they are more likely to be employable.

Setting aside the ideological battles and culture wars fought by this government around ‘woke’ culture of the humanities, focusing on STEM-based skills should be praised. This alone, however, fails to recognise the value of a university education more broadly.

Why Universities?

Universities are thousand-year-old institutions that have had to adapt countless times. Be it the disruption created by technology, increasing competition, massification, a financial squeeze or global pandemics, Australia’s universities have found ways to respond and remain amongst the most respected in the world.

While global rankings have always been considered deeply problematic particularly as they underplay the importance of teaching, they are important in highlighting just how reputable Australia’s institutions are.

But why are world class universities important?

While a vibrant and reputable university sector offers many advantages to a nation, they exist for two core reasons:

1 – To produce future industry, political and community leaders that drive economic capital and well-being; and

2 – To generate active, engaged, informed, and empowered citizens.

A sector or institution that only focuses on one of these will not only fail to meet its potential but risks the long-term wellbeing of the nation.

For example, by only focusing on economic drivers and STEM skills, creativity, originality and imagination suffer. If we move too far to the other side of the equation, entrepreneurship, job creation and scientific breakthroughs are unlikely.

This tension between the sciences and arts is important: students from all disciplines should be encouraged to be curious about what else is being taught and should have access to the educators that can feed this inquisitiveness. The pandemic has shown us that it is necessary to work collaboratively across the sciences, arts and politics.

We want our graduates to be empowered, be sceptical, respectfully debate and search for creative solutions to contemporary grand challenges. We should not be concerned when a student questions the science of climate change nor the ANZAC legend: this is critical thinking, and the process ensures that any future position is well justified not based on blind obedience.

Graduate attributes

Universities know this and over the last two decades, have invested heavily in identifying what ‘attributes’ they want their graduates to have when they leave the institution. Such ‘graduate attributes’ are defined as, “… the high-level qualities, skills and understandings that a student should gain as a result of the learning and experiences they engage with, while at university.

In a way, however, universities have over invested in this area and over complicated what they are trying to achieve. We have sat in committee meetings with dozens of academics where they have debated the correct ‘verb’ when drafting graduate attributes. We have had to endure conferences and listened to academics go into endless details and produce hundreds of papers of what seems to add very little, if anything, to the student journey.

Unfortunately, the attributes employed tend to fall short for two key reasons: firstly, students have no idea what they are, and secondly, there is no way to measure these lofty and generic statements.

This failure to articulate by graduates and even lecturers undermine the very purpose of the attributes themselves.

One practice good educator’s employ is to ask their students to read and attempt to decipher what the generic attributes mean and then re-draft them. In so doing, the students sketch a set of attributes that mean something to them.

In our experience, these are the five graduate attributes that need to be embraced that can be articulated to our graduates, by our graduates, understood by employers and meet the twin objectives of economic progress and citizenship:

1 – Curiosity: I am encouraged to be inquisitive, pursue my interests and challenge accepted wisdoms.

2 – Empathy: I care about those around me and take responsibility for the consequences of my actions.

3 – Responsibility: I have responsibility to my community including the history of our nation (the good, the bad, and the ugly). This responsibility includes understanding and learning from the Indigenous peoples who have been custodians of this continent for millennia.

4 – Calling bullshit: I have learnt to call out claims that cannot be sustained or are based on ideology alone. I use this knowledge to engage in constructive and respectful dialogue.

5 – Problem definition: I define problems and work to solve them.

In an outstanding blogpost, St Luke’s Principal Greg Miller challenges us to reflect on the value of a university education. Miller’s challenge should be taken seriously – and understanding what we want out graduates to be is one way of responding.

This article was written by James Arvanitakis and Jo Winchester, the Deputy Head of Education, Blacktown and Co-Academic Lead for Student Success in the Office of the Provost at Australian Catholic University. She is also host of the popular podcast ‘Teaching Heroes‘.