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UA Conference emphasises higher ed’s role in future of work

Higher education’s role in preparing domestic and international students for work in the future of artificial intelligence and automation was reiterated at the recent Universities Australia Higher Education Conference in Canberra.

“For many of us, the future seems to offer a dazzling array of choices,” Bruce Reed, co-chair of the future of work initiative in the US’s Aspen Institute, told delegates in his opening address.

“We can decide when to work; we don’t have to dress up for work, we don’t even have to show up for work. But for millions in [Australia and the US], what makes the future of work so frightening is the life they’ve chosen is no longer on the list.”

With a theme of Future Fundamentals, the event explored how teaching, learning and research will need to change in the face of new political, economic and technological environments, with delegates urged to stay ahead of the curve to ensure the whole of society benefits.

In a speech that hit on many points from last year’s conference, Reed said that within the US, the working class had become a “canary in the coal mine” for communities could be destroyed due to jobs losses through automation, adding that unemployment also had significant detrimental impacts to community morale.

“The real emotional hold the future of work has on us isn’t so much the future as it is work. We define our lives, our humanity, and a purpose around work,” he explained.

Former director of the University of Sydney’s Centre for Translational Data, Hugh Durrant-Whyte said this breaking apart of community and morale was a key driver in the “inequality and the backlash we’re seeing across the globe”.

“The jobs that are basically technical, creative and social skills, they will grow,” he said.

“That’s the kind of thing we should be investing in.”

Reed, agreed, adding that to remain relevant, universities should track their students to ensure they fully understand the long-term impacts of their courses.

“It’s entirely possible that majoring in English, as I did, turns out to be a great career decision for the world of the future,” he said.

“Those of us who believe strongly it matters have an obligation to show the evidence.”

Australian National University professor Genevieve Bell argued cross-disciplinary collaboration was essential for preparing for the future of work.

“This can’t just be about computer scientists talking to other computer scientists,” she said.

“This is about bringing not just ethics, but public policy, the law, the arts, the social sciences… into the conversation, because the conversation about the future and… what jobs might exist… aren’t just conversations about teaching people to cope.

“They’re conversations about how do you bring a viewpoint that is both robust and complicated to that future.”

Also speaking in the session, Deb Verhoeven, associate dean at the University of Technology Sydney, countered concerns that artificial intelligence would remove people from work, saying instead it could be used to identify societal problems.

“At the moment, the only way in which we know male domination occurs in the environments we engage in is when the damage is already done,” she said.

“When women are damaged, when they leave, when they take out lawsuits, when they never come back, that’s when we decide we’ve seen male domination.”

Verhoeven said using criminal network analysis, inequalities could be identified in research teams and grants to determine where problems lie, which could further help those from outside traditional power systems.

“We can work with machines to disspell ideas about future dystopia and instead address the ones we currently live in and the ones we currently support,” she said.

“I think we need to do that by involving not just the machines, but all the various humans who aren’t currently on the playing field. This is an enormously important opportunity for us to lift our game and redress the divisiveness.”

In the upcoming issue of The PIE Review, we find out what the future of work might look like and how higher education is helping international students prepare.