Is getting a university degree worth it?

Research shows a university degree is not always the best pathway to practical, real-world work opportunities.

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Is getting a university degree even worth it? According to many Australian employees, not really.

In a survey of 3000+ employees across Australia, the UK and US, 49 per cent of employees believe university failed to prepare them for their current jobs, with life experience ranked more useful than a university degree.

The research commissioned by Australian-founded learning content expert Go1 uncovers the different attitudes to learning in today’s multi-generational workforce. As Year 12 students around the country complete their final exams and submit their university applications for 2024, the findings raise serious questions on how well Australian universities integrate necessary workforce skills into their pedagogy. It also highlights the need for training and upskilling that is practical and relevant to the sector.

Other key findings include:

  • 61 per cent said work experience best prepared them for their current roles, followed by on-the-job training (40 per cent) and life experience (36 per cent). Only 25 per cent of respondents said higher education.
  • 51 per cent said how to approach career progression was the top thing they wished they had learned before entering the workforce, followed by the fundamentals of the role (33 per cent)
  • 54 per cent of employees are open to using AI-generated learning materials or using AI tools to help them learn and 49 per cent believe AI will help them develop skills needed in the workplace more quickly
  • Almost half of Aussie graduates feel unprepared for the workforce, while life experience is ranked more useful than a degree

Meeting relevant training needs and delivering upskilling support matters

Go1’s research reveals trends in today’s multi-generational workforce and how companies can meet upskilling and training needs across generations.

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The combination of different age groups in the workforce “has introduced new attitudes and beliefs when it comes to the way that employees like to work and learn”, says said Chris Eigeland, CEO and co-founder at Go1.

“While there are some similarities, particularly when it comes to the value they place on traditional education, there are also differences in how they want to acquire new knowledge and skills. This presents a challenge for leaders looking to upskill and realise the benefits of a generationally diverse workforce.”

When deciding where to work or whether to stay at a job, over two-thirds (68 per cent) of employees believe learning and development opportunities are absolutely essential and valuable. While increasing their salary potential is the top motivator to acquire new skills for Gen Z employees (47 per cent), general personal development is the top motivator for Boomers (57 per cent), Gen X (52 per cent) and millennial (52 per cent) employees.

The AI effect and TikTok-ification of learning

As new AI technology continues to permeate businesses and industries, employees are leaning towards optimism when it comes to the impact on their work and ability to learn. Over half (54 per cent) of employees are open to using AI-generated learning materials or using AI tools to help them learn, while 49 per cent of employees agree or completely agree that AI will help them develop skills needed in the workplace more quickly.

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In addition, finding information more quickly (49 per cent) and using generative AI (48 per cent) were named as the top skills most needed to stay ahead of the AI curve. Younger workers are more likely to see AI as critical to their development, with around a third of Gen Z employees (29 per cent) and millennials (32 per cent) looking to generative AI as the only learning tools they need, compared to 23 per cent of Gen X and 14 per cent of ‘boomer’ employees.

The research also revealed the influence of video-based platforms like TikTok on how employees are consuming and engaging with learning content. Short videos of less than 3 minutes (48 per cent) and on-the-job training with a real-life instructor (48 per cent) are the top learning content types provided by employers, which is also consistent with the types employees like to use for learning, at 43 per cent and 50 per cent respectively.

“The ability to personalise learning to the varied needs of different generations can mean the difference between a high-performing workforce and an under-par one,” said Mr Eigeland. “Learning and development leaders will need to find new ways to tailor content curation, development and delivery strategies to the unique learning preferences of different generations if they hope to use learning as a competitive lever and close workforce skills gaps.”

More support needed for on-the-job education

Given how positively work experience is viewed, EducationDaily asked Mr Eigeland what more could be done to better support on-the-job training and education.

“There is ample opportunity for employers to revamp their learning and development programs to retain and attract future talent. This could include increasing the number of internships and work experience placements for university students, to help people apply their academic learning in a real-life setting,” he says.

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“Employers could also provide more job shadowing programs, where junior team members follow experienced colleagues and observe how they work in their role over a period of time. This is proven to be an effective way to help employees build work-ready skills like communication and interpersonal skills, presentation confidence and maturity early in their careers. Work experience can also be further encouraged by providing access to online and in-person professional workshops and courses, which target accounting and finance, project management and other leadership topics. These internal and external courses help employees meet other similar professionals from whom they can learn new analytical, critical thinking and problem-solving skills and exchange business management knowledge.”

Introduce internship programs for high school students

Internship programs, he believes, do not need to be restricted to the last years of university but can be brought into high school programs to give students a more substantial insight into potential career paths.

“It’s incredibly tough for high school students to select their potential career at the early age of seventeen or eighteen without any real insight into the sector,” Mr Eigeland told EducationDaily. “Internships and new industry-relevant electives aligned with specific career clusters can provide students with opportunities to earn early certifications or credentials in their chosen field of interest. We can borrow from the TAFE system by helping secondary schools build stronger partnerships with local businesses to establish mentorship programs to help make more informed choices about their education pathways.”

Go1’s philosophy is that learning is a lifelong pursuit and careers are not linear,” he says.

“Schools can help students move away from traditionalist thinking outlining the pathway of school – university – work – retirement. In reality, you may have many different career paths, and you’ll need to continuously invest in learning and relearning skills.”

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Real-world learning informed by real people

With a growing need for the private sector and higher education organisations to collaborate more frequently to better prepare students for life in the workforce, Mr Eigeland says universities should look to increase the volume of corporate presentations and guest lecturers or seminars on offer.

“These sessions provide access to content that directly relates to specific industries, sharing what’s happening in the day-to-day workforce, changes or challenges from the last six to twelve months, which may not be covered by university curriculum, and most importantly, introductions to key industry personnel.”

Another avenue, he says, includes having university students work directly with brands or companies on specific briefs or initiatives, simulating real-life approaches including briefing meetings, campaign or concept development, pitching presentations and more.

“This direct contact showcases how the private sector operates, from professional services to finance or retail conglomerates, students from any area of study should have access to what their unique industry expects from graduates.”

AI education is critical

With so many younger workers identifying AI education as critical to their future work opportunities, schools, universities and employers should embrace learning and development of this tech tool to arm future workers with relevant skills and knowledge,” Mr Eigeland says.

“AI developments are moving rapidly, substantially impacting the way society, the workforce and education systems operate. The Commonwealth, States and Territories and representatives of the non-government school sector have already recognised the prevalence of AI in education and are collaborating on the development of a principles-based framework to support schools and education systems in the use of AI,” he told EducationDaily.

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“The future of the workforce will have elements of AI embedded into it, and students should be aware of how they can learn and benefit from its use.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]