Are we learning for the right reasons?

Are we learning for the right reasons?

Professor Margaret Gardner AO, Monash University
Education for the Future Summit ADC Forum
11 June 2016

I thought that the question posed for us to consider this evening over dinner – are we learning for the right reasons? – might cause indigestion before it prompted reflection. For many of us, our most intense recent learning is likely to be struggling with a new digital game - (what is this  Pokemon about?) - or acquiring a new travel language - (I will be able to say more than ‘giorno’ and ‘ciao’ next time) – rather than formal education.

So the moral question before us is a surprising lens. And you may be relieved to know that I do not intend to spend time engaged in Socratic contemplation of how true self-awareness will lead us to wisdom and knowledge and to what is right and therefore good.

Of course, according to Socrates, when we reach that self-awareness we will also be truly happy. From this ethical standpoint then, learning for the right reasons is indeed its own reward.

But for the purposes of this Summit we are trying to understand how policy might be shaped to provide the means for us all to gain knowledge (and perhaps some wisdom along the way). For it is clear that education brings powerful material, as well as spiritual benefits, for the society as well as the  individual. Our recognition of these benefits has underpinned our commitment to universal primary and secondary education – and increasingly to the extension of access to tertiary education to the Australian citizenry.

We have slipped, almost without pausing to mark the change, from a world where education policy was focused on improved Year 12 attainment to prepare us for the future to one where access to tertiary education, that is, to vocational education qualifications and to bachelor degrees, is critical to preparation  for the knowledge and service economy.

It is important to be reminded of the general benefits of education, because a narrow perspective about its utility in employment frames so much of our discussion of tertiary education. I think I can suggest there is no moral philosophy that would support this narrow gauge as the ‘right’  reason for learning.

Employability is, however, a concern for individuals because of their expectations of the material benefits of formal learning such as, for example, completing a degree, given their investment in obtaining it. And also it is of concern to our society, which seeks appropriate numbers of professionals  for many critical roles and for economic advancement, which is increasingly dependent on knowledge workers for future prosperity.

For Australia, education, and particularly university education, has very high salience for future prosperity, not only because we are increasingly a knowledge economy but also because there are few other advanced economies in the world where higher education constitutes the premier services export,  as well as the only major non-resource export.

We are familiar with discussions about how the world is transforming and what this means for tertiary education. These discussions are dominated by disruption and its link to employability and pivot around this question of preparation for a changing economy and employment.

At the beginning of this year CSIRO released a report entitled Tomorrow's Digitally Enabled Workforce, which deftly captures many elements of this type of discussion.[1]

The report identifies four changes with the potential to profoundly transform jobs and industries in Australia

  • exponential growth in the power, connectivity, and capability of computers and related devices
  • increased peer to peer arenas and global platforms supporting entrepreneurial activity
  • a more diverse and older workforce, and
  • the rise and rise of service and knowledge exports.

The CSIRO report explores a number of scenarios that test the impact of differing levels of transformation of institutions and automation of tasks to assist in assessing possible future changes.

We have all observed and participated in the automation of many routine aspects of a variety of jobs. Just as we have seen and anticipate major shifts in a number of industries from mining to manufacturing to retail to various services (from the postal service to banking). The report suggests six new  jobs of the future, bigger big data analysts, complex decision support analysts, remote controlled vehicle operators, customer experience experts, personal preventive health helpers and online chaperones. And it is clear that the opportunities of the digital world are writ large in this future and require  a literacy or capability not just in our workforce, but also in our population.

Deloitte, in a paper titled The Importance of Universities to Australia’s Prosperity, estimated that there would be a need for large increases in skilled graduates in the next decade in the following five sectors: education and training, health care and social assistance, professional, scientific and technical services,  public administration and safety and financial and insurance services.[2] A growth in demand for university qualifications of 30% or more, with health care and social assistance requiring the largest proportional increase - some 41% above current  levels.[3]

They estimated that Australia would need 2.1m more graduates in 2025 than today and will also need to replace 1.7m who will exit the workforce over that period.[4] This will mean that the proportion of the Australian population with higher education qualifications will also increase – a population then much more accustomed to spending considerable time in formal learning, and therefore more easily  able to acquire new specialisations and skills.

This doesn’t mean all new jobs will require degrees, however of the top five employing industries in Australia at present, three (health, education and professional services) are very dependent on graduates and combined they represent over 29% of the workforce.[5] It is important to keep this demand in mind when concerns about short-term employment prospects for graduates threaten to distract us from future needs or from the clear data that shows the low levels of unemployment of graduates. There is  no medium term future that will need less graduates – or less people with tertiary qualifications.

And yet It is a truism that from today’s perspective we are unlikely to predict accurately the shape of new jobs and industries ten years into the future. And that for every 'new' job or totally disrupted industry, there will be jobs that share similarities with their former selves but have become  more specialised or bundled with other roles; become more common or increasingly rare; and industries that have globalised, changing location and dispersal, and risen or fallen in their centrality to the nation or the region.

It is clear there are new fields that need exploration; that we cannot clearly see the shapes of the professions for the future; and all this raises questions about capabilities to be built by our graduates? One thing is sure these changes require a more flexible, sophisticated, educated future.

That we cannot see clearly makes it more important that we investigate the possibilities. Research thrives on the drive to see what cannot be seen and explain the apparently inexplicable, but more research is also the engine of innovation shaping these new futures so that we do not only receive and  respond, but conceive and direct. And so with our need for more tertiary education and more degrees comes the need for a depth in research that makes us a significant part of future developments.

So we must explore this future and ensure that learning prepares students for the unseen and inexplicable, and nurtures a life and an identity not too inextricably linked to the profession or degree that they first chose. All must make a first choice, but as it is clear that the first bachelor’s  degree, for example, is unlikely to be the last learning and educational choice that the students of today will need to make, it is the quality of the learning, that is, paramount as preparation. For high quality learning produces and supports independence, flexibility, curiosity, creativity and problem  solving as the embedded benefits of completing a degree.

Let me close by giving two quite different examples from Monash that show the ways that university education attempts to anticipate this future and engage our students through high quality learning in it. In considering professions for the future, the Monash Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science  has reshaped its curriculum (to be implemented from 2017). This Faculty is currently rated 4th in the world (by QS) based on its research outcomes and education and research reputation.[6] The list for those interested is Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford and at equal 4th Monash and King’s College London.

The Faculty has nested an honours Bachelor degree in a Master of Pharmacy; changing the pedagogy through digital or virtual simulations of dispensing and the Monash developed Pharmatopia that work beyond the classroom;[7] building the curriculum around predicted industry trends for the next decade, key capabilities, and two significant periods embedded in industry - a 12 week placement in 4th year and a fifth year that involves a year long paid internship.

This changed curriculum reflects the need to allow graduates to learn and to build their capabilities in a more flexible, differentiated and problem solving environment. This is not the only example of major changes in what is taught and how it is taught at Monash, nor in Australia’s universities.

We can expect that curriculum content and shape of degrees, as well as the way learning is done, will change profoundly as more flexible, personalised and experiential elements are built into undergraduate and postgraduate education. And this is a good example.

But the degree program alone is too narrow a focus of the site of learning in universities. The second example I wish to present is called Student Futures and it is an online platform open to all Monash students from undergraduate to PhD, launched this year.

The platform hosts over one thousand co-curricular programs and activities. These are the student leadership programs, sports or arts and culture involvement, student clubs and societies, volunteer groups and projects and so on that make up the full student experience and life in a university.

These co-curricular programs are grouped under nine tags, creativity and innovation, communication, initiative and enterprise, professionalism, team work, intercultural competence, planning and organization, problem identification and solution and use of tools and technology.

The platform allows students to track their activities and to reflect on their development, build a profile of their capabilities and be able to present this to others. It has a ‘Voice of the Graduate’ feature that allows students to access profiles, content and advice from recent graduates.  It is voluntary, it is flexible, it shows how broadly learning occurs. Most importantly it is reflective, students write about these activities - building self-awareness. And as Socrates would tell us, this is learning for the right reasons.

Both these examples are about expanding learning, rather than more prescriptive telling from people in the classroom or from those looking in from the vantage point of their particular organisations. Our policy needs to support tertiary education that can provide this range and depth of learning.

Learning and education that embrace the future, that allow the individual the room to choose and to reflect, to experiment as well as to copy, this is learning for the right reasons and it will ensure the greatest benefit to the individual and therefore to all of us.


[1] Hajkowicz S.A., Reeson A., Rudd L., Bratanova A., Hodgers L., Mason C., Boughen N. (CSIRO), Tomorrow’s Digitally Enabled Workforce: Megatrends and Scenarios for Jobs and Employment in Australia Over the Coming Twenty Years, Brisbane: CSIRO, 2016.

[2] Deloitte Access Economics (Deloitte), The Importance of Universities to Australia’s Prosperity, Barton: Deloitte, October 2015

[3] Deloitte, p46.

[4] Deloitte, p44.

[5] Hajkowicz, p23.

[6] “Monash Ranked #4 in World for Pharmacy and Pharmacology”,, August 11 2016, URL:

[7] “Pharmatopia”,, August 11 2016, URL: