Business Is Boring #30 – AUT Vice-Chancellor Derek McCormack on the changing nature of work and education

‘Business is Boring’ is a weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound speaks with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and a transcribed excerpt.

Making it in the modern economy is no easy thing. Traditional career paths, the idea of one job or one career or specialty skill, those are not the way today. It’s all about slashies: model/DJ/accountant, change and opportunity. But how do people equip themselves for this environment? And, within it, what is the role of university and higher education? Someone who has been thinking a lot about this is Derek McCormack, the Vice-Chancellor of AUT, who braved the Spinoff stairwell for a chinwag.

Either download (right click to save)subscribe through iTunes (RSS feed), listen below or read on for a transcribed excerpt.

What has changed in the last ten years about the nature of work?

That’s tricky. I guess these things sort of sneak up on you, don’t they? I think even ten years ago work was not the job for life, it had started to change away from that, and now I think there’s a lot more uncertainty. Students move through school and into university or out into the job market, there’s less and less certainty about what sort of jobs will be there and how long will they be there for. Ten years ago we couldn’t have imagined you could make money with a thing called an app that was on this super-device that you carry around in your pocket and everybody has one. That would just be beyond thinking, so people preparing for that would’ve been impossible.

The way that work is changing, technology is changing, globalisation is changing, the way society’s work is changing, we need to be training our students to be able to embrace the changing world. Which is why AUT is “the university for the changing world”. That means transferrable skills, it means learning about how to be the best person you want to be in whatever context you find yourself, rather than just how to be a nurse. I mean, we do train nurses, we train lawyers, engineers, they need to know the basic core skills. But they also need to have a whole lot of other things, which I call the C skills, that should be able to take them anywhere.

What are the C skills?

They’re things like critical thinking, creative solution exploring, communication, collaboration, cultural intelligence, curiosity, a whole range of things. The qualities and habits of mind and social skills that will fit you into any sort of position anywhere. And they’re probably the real outtakes of a university education. So you could almost study anything and come out with valuable skills to take you forward. We at AUT hope to maximise that aspect of the learning.

Because with a three or four year degree, with the pace of change, are you able to plot things out for the whole four years or have you had to change how you guys are putting together courses in fast-changing industries?

That’s complex because a lot of courses have a lot of technology associated with them. They have expert teachers and professors that need to be there, and most New Zealand courses need to be approved by somebody so that we’re not selling something that is low quality or irrelevant or something like that. So all of our courses have to be approved by the committee on university academic programmes, and they get approved as a whole course. You can make adjustments to how you deliver them but the basic curriculum is settled and then that’s reviewed every five years.

How does five years present a challenge in staying relevant with the pace of change?

You’re never going to be relevant, I think that’s the issue. You’re never going to be relevant for all time. So I think you’ve got to say okay, what’s good to know now? What’s strong in the present and then what will make you a flexible player as you move into the future?

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