Academic Literature

Non-Cognitive Skills – University education has significant effects study finds

Recently, a public debate has emerged on whether universities teach the right skill-sets that prepare students for a continuously changing and globally expanding labor market. Various articles from leading scholars and journalists emphasize that university education falls short of teaching students creativity, socioemotional skills, attributes of ownership, and the ability to learn on the fly. They argue that such non-cognitive skills are valued highly by employers and by society-at-large.

In this paper we contribute to this discussion by providing a first empirical glance at the role that university education plays in building non-cognitive skills, an alternative component of human capital. We follow the educational decisions and the evolution of non-cognitive skills – proxied by the Big Five personality traits and mental health – of 618 Australian adolescents over eight years. We pay particular attention to possible interactions between university education and socioeconomic status.

We find that university education has significant effects on outward orientation and mental health, and agreeableness for students from low socioeconomic status. These effects cannot be explained by individual-specific heterogeneity, time-varying life events, work experience or differences in the initial level of non-cognitive skills. The buffering effects of university education on extraversion are equally strong across all university groups and fields of study, suggesting that they are not driven by self-selection of students into specific degrees or universities.

We draw two conclusions from our findings. First, university education in Australia is successful in shaping some non-cognitive skills which employers and society value. The public discourse is misguided on claiming that universities need a major overhaul of curriculums and the way they teach students. Second, our robust findings contribute to a wider discussion that seeks to enhance non-cognitive skills through the education sector.

Our findings also suggest that non-cognitive skills can still be shaped at later stages. This conclusion may result in the possibility for targeting interventions to boost non-cognitive skills in the secondary and tertiary education sector.

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at Do Universities Shape their Students’ Non-Cognitive Skills? | UQ LCC

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