THE Hunter’s economy – home to the world’s largest coal export port – is still not capable of providing viable employment options for many of the thousands of university graduates seeking jobs at the end of their degrees.
The recent Auditor General’s report into the state’s universities shows University of Newcastle undergraduates have marginally lower than average full-time employment outcomes.
By comparison, the University of Wollongong and University of New England had well above average employment outcomes for undergraduates.
While the Lower Hunter had made significant progress in the past two decades in transitioning from a blue-collar economy into a service-based economy, the region continues to produce more graduates overall than jobs.
“A university education is passport that brings a wealth of social and economic benefits. The argument that there are too many graduates is just silly,” Western Sydney University research fellow Phillip O’Neill said.
“The University of Newcastle is an excellent institution. The below average employment outcomes is not a reflection of the quality of graduates but the thinness of the professional services sector of Hunter’s labour market.”
Judging graduate outcomes on the basis of full-time employment is increasingly out of step with the future of work and in our region in particular.- University of Newcastle deputy vice-chancellor Darrell Evans
Newcastle Trades Hall secretary Daniel Wallace said it was disappointing many of the Hunter’s best brightest talents were still forced to leave the region more than 50 years after the university’s establishment.
“The Trades Hall fought for 35 years to build the University of Newcastle. It was meant to be a place where working-class people could be educated and work in and contribute to their community after graduating,” he said.
“For many that remains a pipedream because they are still forced to leave the region to get a job.”
An experienced union negotiator, Mr Wallace the biggest impediment to stable employment growth was the contract-based nature of employment opportunities.
“Everything is short-term focused. No one is looking at long-term strategic planning,” he said.
“Forgacs had full employment for three years and then nothing.”
“It’s not going to change unless there is bipartisan political support to make long-term investments in regional areas.”
The university’s graduate employment outcomes data shows that graduates from degrees in areas of skill shortages achieved strong employment outcomes.
These included architecture and built environment where more than 95 per cent of graduates gained full-time employment in 2017.
“The recorded employment outcomes for graduates of psychology and creative arts undergraduate programs are impacted by the fact that postgraduate qualifications in psychology are considered almost a minimum requirement and much of the work in creative arts fields exists in forms other than full-time employment,” University of Newcastle Deputy Vice-Chancellor Darrell Evans said.
Significantly, the Auditor General’s report show the University of Newcastle boasted the highest employment outcomes for postgraduate coursework students for all NSW universities.
A 2016 Hunter Research Foundation report Future of Hunter Jobs said health care, education and training, hospitality, business services were expected to employ increasing numbers of people by 2020.
“Growth to 2020 in the number of jobs in the region (at 8.1 per cent or 24,500 jobs) is projected to outstrip the Hunter’s slow population growth (5.1 per cent) and particularly the growth in residents of workforce age (at 2.6 per cent or 10,600 persons,” the report said.
This growth would be underpinned by a trend to part-time and casual work, increasing workforce participation by women and pressure for older workers to continue beyond the age of 65.
Over the same period, the Hunter’s older population (65+) is projected to grow at 15 per cent.
Parliamentary Secretary for the Hunter Scot MacDonald defended the state government’s economic record of investment in the region, such as the $660 million Revitalising Newcastle project.
“We are doing everything we can to keep the pedal to the metal to create jobs. As part of that we are investing a record amount in the Hunter’s economy, ” he said.
“Government’s can’t force students to study in areas where they are more likely to get jobs.
Federal Hunter MP and shadow agriculture minister Joel Fitzgibbon said university education should not automatically be regarded as a more attractive option than vocational education and training.
“I think we went through a period when we put too much emphasis on university degrees. There are very good life-long careers in trades,” he said.
“Clever countries need skilled tradespeople and if we are not careful we will end up with a shortage of tradespeople.”
Federal Newcastle MP Sharon Claydon agreed that university and vocational training should be equally desirable options for young people.
“Regretfully, the reputation of VET (Vocational Education and Training) sector has taken a beating as a result of $3 billion worth of cuts to the sector since 2014 by the Federal Government and massive rorting of the VET- FEE HELP system by private providers,” Ms Claydon said.
“We need to invest in better training and enduring careers for young Australians. That’s why Labor will put TAFE at the centre of our vocational education system with a guarantee it receives at least two-thirds of public VET funding.”
For Newcastle communications graduate Lani Beaven, self motivation proved to be the key to securing a highly competitive entry level position close to home.
“Newcastle is booming at the moment,” Ms Beaven, who works as a marketing account executive at Nimbler Digital in Newcastle, said.
“There are jobs out there, but they often expect you to have more experience than a graduate can reasonably be expected to have.”
She said many of her peers had chosen to take up jobs in areas other than their field of study in order to stay in Newcastle.
“I would have been prepared to move to Sydney but it wouldn’t have been ideal because of the cost of living,” she said.
“I know people who are still working in admin and those sorts of things because they want to stay in Newcastle.”
Newcastle University Students Association president Christy Mullen said accessing relevant work experience while studying was a major challenge for many students.
While some degrees where external support and employment experiences were integrated, such as nursing, medicine, teaching and social Work, it was not common across the board,” Ms Mullen said.
“For degrees in creative or humanities fields, such as the Bachelor of Arts, there is little to no incentive or opportunity to engage in work experience in a field of interest,” she said.
“Newcastle and the Hunter region’s size would be a contributing factor to this situation.”
“The University of Newcastle also receives many regional and rural students from all around the state who cannot or do not want to go to Sydney, and so many students find they must leave Newcastle or the Hunter to find stable and consistent work.”
Professor Evans cited a recent Foundation for Young Australians report – The New Work Reality – which highlights the transition to full-time work was increasingly becoming longer for young people.
“Judging graduate outcomes on the basis of full-time employment is increasingly out of step with the future of work and in our region in particular,” he said.
An increasing number of graduates were also becoming self-employed.
“The university promotes and supports students to be entrepreneurial and we are seeing our graduates opt for creating their own jobs as a way to secure their future career,” Professor Evans said.
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