Quality Will Define the Global Growth of BootcampsJan Thomas | Vice Chancellor and President, University of Southern Queensland
The adjustment in style and tone of the Australian government that has accompanied the recent change of Prime Minister has been palpable. Suddenly, a host of seemingly new ideas has emerged as part of a renewed national dialogue. However, none of these ideas is actually particularly new. The government’s casting of innovation as a central plank for driving Australia’s future is a good case in point. Even a cursory review of world news indicates that innovation dominates the dialogue on future economic growth across most OECD and BRIC economies. What the new Turnbull government has actually done is to start to bring Australia into sync with the rest of the world on a range of major issues. We are now part of a global conversation on a whole host of topics viewed as central to reform.
The widespread development of coding skills as a basis for positioning Australia’s workforce to both cope with and exploit the opportunities created by the digital revolution is another case in point. In September, as part of a discussion on Australia’s national school curriculum, then-Education Minister Christopher Pyne endorsed a digital technologies curriculum that will introduce computer coding in the elementary school curriculum and have students actively programming well before they get to high school. This mimics moves already underway overseas. In the UK, for example, these strategies are already in place to prepare students for life in a digital world, to empower future entrepreneurs, and to address in the long term the ever-growing demand by the employment market for technology skills.
Similarly, the US is more advanced than Australia in its efforts to enhance coding skills in the workforce. In particular, coding bootcamps and certification programs have been proliferating there, with some 70 bootcamps now reportedly operating in around 50 US and Canadian cities. This has prompted the US government to consider plans to offer student loans for coding bootcamps to assist and encourage students to attend them. This is a significant departure from the US government’s traditional position of only offering loans for accredited postsecondary education programs. Private lenders are already very active in this space, typically providing three- to five-year loans with interest rates in the order of 7.5 to 10 percent. This has become serious business!
With Australia now very much a part of a global conversation on the importance of coding as an enabling skill for a “new economy” workforce, we are naturally open to the influence of such emerging global trends as coding bootcamps. So will we experience the explosion of these programs that is being seen in the US?
Certainly the same incentives to improve digital skills in the workforce exist in Australia as are present overseas. The literature is rife with reports on the degree to which smart computing and automation will impact the future job market. Most recently, The Foundation for Young Australians has released a report entitled: “The New Work Order” that highlights the ways in which our employment market will be influenced by major drivers such as globalisation, collaboration and automation. The report argues that 70 percent of entry-level jobs are at risk of automation in the future and that 60 percent of young people are currently studying for jobs that will be altered—often radically—by automation. This uncertain employment future is already prompting universities to revise their curricula and Gen Y to amass a range of qualifications in order to improve their employability, with qualifications pertinent to functioning in a digital world high on the wish list.
However, while Australia is gradually deregulating its tertiary education sectors, I don’t believe that our regulatory environment is conducive to the kind of “coding bootcamp frenzy” that has gripped the US. In particular, we have recently been rocked by scandals in the vocational education and training sector caused by a small proportion of private providers behaving badly in a deregulated market. This has been so bad as to make the Education and Training Minister Simon Birmingham express caution about opening up the demand-driven system in higher education to private providers. Together with Australia’s rigorous accreditation system this will mean that things are likely to move a little slower here for programs such as coding bootcamps.
I believe Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which are growing in popularity, are more likely to make an impact in this space in Australia. With business models that enable students to study in a high-quality online course with an Australian or top-rate overseas university for free, with a qualification certificate available if required for a small fee (often as little as $50), it represents a highly attractive and practical option.
As to the question of how traditional academic qualifications will compete with these trends, there has to date been no indication that demand for university has been negatively impacted by the rising availability of other options of study. In fact, demand for undergraduate and postgraduate study continue to rise. However, Australia does face challenges with regard to attracting students into the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) that are critical for Australia’s innovation future. The solutions to this require strategies that go beyond education and training into considerations of broad-based workforce and industry-education collaboration strategies. It also requires STEM skills across all areas of study, not only within the formal qualifications in those areas.
To sum up, I believe that improved education and training is increasingly being seen as essential to the career paths of all Australians. Having multiple pathways and options available that suit individual needs is a good thing and should be encouraged, provided that the options are of the highest quality and operated ethically and professionally.
A key question for those investing time and money in the study of alternative education programs will be the degree to which they enhance a person’s chance to secure or progress within a job. Initial reports from the US indicate that many coding bootcamps fall short of their claims to guarantee improved employment prospects for those completing them. The market will ultimately determine the popularity of such programs and how they sit beside more established and proven higher education models.
Author Perspective: Administrator