By Attila Brungs, Vice-Chancellor, UTS
Op-ed first published in The Australian, 14 June 2017
There is something important about going out and being exposed to a real workplace or community organisation during your time at university.
I was fortunate to be enrolled in a co-op program and worked in industry 12 weeks every summer during my science degree. However, my most valuable experience was not working in the latest industrial laboratory but when I was sent to work in the complaints department of the paint manufacturing company I was interned to. That period gave me a masterclass in the complexities of human nature and interactions that has stayed with me my whole career. Being screamed at by a grandmotherly figure and being able to genuinely empathise with her and her situation is one lesson that stands me in good stead, surprisingly, even in my present role.
At the University of Technology Sydney, internships are increasingly critical to how we prepare students for the workforce, and benefits flow both ways.
Our students are able to put theory into practice; they develop skills employers continually tell us are vital such as communication, critical thinking teamwork and digital literacy; they gain enhanced employment prospects after graduation; and they develop an awareness of workplace culture and expectations.
Employers are able to gain an extra resource and an injection of new ideas, new perspectives; they have the opportunity to test a new project; help shape the future generation of professionals for their industry; and attract top talent at an early stage. It’s a no-brainer.
If we needed any further incentive, we know that in less than two decades it’s likely that 5 per cent to 10 per cent of Australian jobs will be done by machines, or algorithms, and about 60 per cent of jobs will have about 30 per cent of what they now do automated. Those jobs won’t be just in heavy manufacturing industries where robotics have already taken over the plant. They will be in areas such as conveyancing, sales and market research.
Universities can only properly prepare students for that vastly different future workforce if we collaborate closely with the industries that will provide them with the jobs, and if we provide students with the space and the skills to create the new industries.
If we are not giving students the skills and experiences future employers need — even if that employer is themselves (recent surveying indicated 40 per cent of our students have already, or intend to, set up their own business) — we are failing them.
At UTS we have a philosophy that our students should start to think of themselves as professionals, in the broader sense of the word, from day one of their study — not at graduation. The intent is that we are producing graduates who can contribute to the workplace or society immediately.
Our aim is to give every one of our students an internship or similar experience before they graduate. More than 50 per cent of our students who finished last year had one.
We still have a way to go but I am buoyed by the federal government’s recent announcement that from next year commonwealth contributions will be provided for work experience in industry units that are credited towards a qualification.
This is a very positive development for students, universities, and industry partners. But we will need to ensure that the scheme allows enough flexibility for different types of students and ambitions. With internships, one size does not fit all.
At UTS for those students with an entrepreneurial bent, we create opportunities for them to cut their teeth in developing their own start-ups, solving real world problems for clients.
Our internships extend beyond the valuable but typical six months’ stint at an engineering or accounting firm to working in small and medium enterprises, community organisations, overseas institutions as well as joining a start-up or founding a company.
In the past three years 12,000 students engaged in entrepreneurial activities across UTS. This year more than 3000 will be involved in our Hatchery, accelerator and hackathon programs.
This approach tackles the skills and innovation agendas. As our chancellor, Catherine Livingstone, recently said: “It’s people who innovate, not governments, not institutions, not businesses, but the people inside them — it is an intensely human activity, minds rubbing on minds.” Similarly I frequently, but far less eloquently, quip: “Innovation walks on two legs.”
We’ve tapped into our many industry relationships to find opportunities students couldn’t source for themselves. We’ve had architecture students complete paid internships at one of the world’s most renowned architecture firms, Gehry Partners in Los Angeles, and journalism students travelling overseas to file stories as foreign correspondents for SBS.
We also have companies come to us. Visa, for example, partnered with us to explore the future of wearable technology. Instead of handing the challenge just to our academics, we threw it to a large group of second-year bachelor of creative intelligence and innovation students — connecting Visa not only to the innovators of the future but with the people who will use their products. Students were given the opportunity to work with some of Visa’s most senior people from across the world.
But skills and experience alone aren’t the answer.
We must also instil the idea of lifelong learning in students and the existing workforce. As the future unfolds, we will all need to learn to be more adaptive and willing to continually top up, enhance and renew our skills and knowledge. The onus doesn’t sit with individuals alone; universities also have to heed the warning and get on board. Or we all run the risk of getting left behind.