OPINION: Predicting the Jobs of the future is not as straightforward as the government’s uni fees meddling would suggest.

The Morrison government’s Jobs-ready Graduates Package is more tweak than genuine reform.

The government has announced a repricing of university degrees, reducing the cost of supposed job-relevant STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) degrees and increasing the cost of supposed job-irrelevant humanities and arts degrees.

Underpinning this is the federal government’s projections suggesting that 62 per cent of employment growth over the next five years will be in four areas: science and technology, education, and construction.

But predicting the jobs of the future is not such a straightforward proposition. A report by the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) in 2017, found that almost 60 per cent of students (70 per cent in VET courses) were studying or training for occupations in which more than 60 per cent of the jobs will be automated.

Similarly, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute revealed that “about half the activities people are paid to do globally could theoretically be automated using currently demonstrated technologies”.

Despite these predictions, as artificial intelligence (AI) and Intelligent Automation (IA) evolve, some commentators predict that no job will be indispensable (see for example Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s book The Second Machine Age).

Which prompts the question: why would any government endeavour to social engineer students into degrees that lead to the automation of jobs? The answer is, our government is predicting that AI will create thousands of new jobs. Some, of course, disagree.

We might also consider the possibility that none of the jobs students are training and studying for today are sustainable into the future.

The role of our universities

So, does Scott Morrison and his Minister for Education Dan Tehan, know something we don’t? Or, is “ScoMo” betting on another miracle? And if no miracle is forthcoming, what are the responsibilities of our universities?

Mindful that the principal role of our universities is to educate; they were never meant to engineer students into what they envisaged were the jobs of the future. Although this has always been expected of them, and more or less deemed as part of their responsibility.

Some universities do occasionally reduce their intake of students for a particular vocation due to a surplus of graduates and the corresponding lack of job opportunities.

Still, the norm, especially in more recent times, has been to intensely market the most profitable and popular degrees. And to provide graduates with the universal requisite skills of creativity, adaptivity, critical thinking, and problem-solving. Although there is little tangible evidence of this being taught.

An open letter of discontent

On August 3, 2020, a group of philosophers posted an open letter on the importance of philosophy: An Open Letter on the Importance of Protecting Philosophy.

In short: the letter was a response to the federal government’s changes to university fees and a critique of the assumptions made in the Jobs-ready Graduates Package. The crux of their argument reads as follows:

“The proposed changes to university fees for Australian students are poorly conceived, and unlikely to accomplish their stated aim of preparing graduates for evolutions in the labour market.

“Just as importantly, they express dismissive attitudes towards philosophy and other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences (HASS), and they amount to an attack on the autonomy and well-being of universities. We object to them, and encourage citizens and elected officials to do the same.”

The letter goes on to emphasise the increasing need to confront difficult ethical issues, like how to respond to climate change, the refugee crisis, and the fair distribution of the mounting costs of the pandemic.

They argue that solutions to these kinds of ethical problems cannot be achieved by science and technology alone, but are fundamental to studies in ethics, and moral and political philosophy.

Living in a post-truth world

In a post-truth world in which the bullshit artist has managed to rewrite the tenets of democracy through social media and fake news, it seems ironic that we should downplay the importance of ethics and integrity.

Have we forgotten, or have we chosen to ignore, our many ethical indiscretions of the past and present?

The GFC was caused by a lack of ethics and integrity, and not by a lack of science and technology

Central to three recent royal commissions — Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse; Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry; and Royal Commission into Aged Care — were questions of morals, ethics, and integrity.

And remember what happens when we abandon integrity and succumb to greed? The GFC — the Great Recession of 2007-8 which has returned en masse, lower-ranked and lower-paid jobs worldwide — was a ruinous global event that many countries have yet to recover from.

It was caused by a lack of ethics and integrity, and not by a lack of science and technology.

Technology is a great thing, and it will undoubtedly play a part in the jobs of the future. But it would be a mistake to make it the singular answer to burgeoning unemployment going forward.

 The Dan Tehan argument

The argument put forward by the Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, has three standout flaws:

First, we all know that the “job-ready” mantra is a very loose term. Vocational skills are not only specific to the task and job, but also to the organisation — they are best taught on the job and might take several years of experience to master. Learning on the job is a big part of the educational process, and companies must formally embrace this responsibility.

Second, endeavours to predict the jobs of the future could exacerbate structural unemployment. The truth is, no one actually knows what jobs will be in most demand in the coming decades.

That is, it’s fine to advise, but it’s an overreach to engineer. And as parents know too well, the learning path for young people is often unclear and changeable. And let’s not forget that young people are not merely cogs in the economy, but have their own hopes and dreams about the jobs they want to do.

Third, no capitalist economy has ever been able to solve the anomaly of structural unemployment. Worldwide, there are hundreds of millions of people unemployed and underemployed. This is not solely because workers lack the skills and education. This is because, at its core, capitalism is about the exploitation of people and resources. It has no interest or obligation to achieve full employment.

Which raises the question: has the quest for truth and knowledge itself, and the health and well-being of the collective, which has been pivotal to the evolution of humankind, become subordinate to the economic imperative?

When authority becomes authoritarianism

Our universities used to be places of pluralistic liberalism with the quest for knowledge, discourse, and learning, their goals. The freedom to finally express oneself epitomised the essence of university life.

Heavy-handed government intervention and influence in our universities do not comply with this, nor does such intervention comply with the tenets of a modern democracy.

The federal government has taken it upon itself to engineer an economic outcome by meddling with university fees. The diminution of democracy through the deprivation or distortion of knowledge, and the inequities that that this kind of authoritarianism invites, weakens individual and civic resolve to defend against unjust rulings, policies, and practices that verge on despotism.

There are times when authority must be challenged lest it becomes authoritarianism, this is one of those times.

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