Australian universities equip students with key social skills

13 March 2018
An Australian university education boosts desirable graduate attributes including extraversion and agreeableness along with intellectual skills, according to a new study by University of Sydney researchers.
University education significantly increases sociability skills such as extraversion and agreeableness for all students.
Associate Professor Stefanie Schurer

Published by Oxford Economic Papers, the report University Education and Non-Cognitive Skill Development reveals the social skills transmitted to students during their time at university for the first time.

“The benefits of university education have traditionally been measured in terms of individual income gains and academic achievement but our study provides the first empirical evidence to suggest that university life also has important social benefits,” said Associate Professor Stefanie Schurer, lead author of the report.

Using nationally-representative data from the Household, Income, and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey, the team of researchers from the School of Economics followed 575 adolescents over eight years and measured the prevalence of key personality traits or ‘non-cognitive skills’ at four year intervals.

To measure character development, the researchers selected traits, many of which are valued by employers and society - extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness to experience.

“Surprisingly, we found that university education significantly increases sociability skills such as extraversion for all students and agreeableness for those from disadvantaged backgrounds,” said Associate Professor Schurer.

"Furthermore, the longer a student is exposed to university life, the stronger the impact. These effects do not substantially differ by degree or university type.”

The benefits of university life

Despite public debate questioning whether universities teach the right skills to prepare students for their future, Schurer’s research attributed the increase to three core aspects of university life.

  • The demands of their course - time management, persistence, social and intellectual engagement.
  • Exposure to degree-specific content.
  • Exposure to peer groups and extracurricular activities.

Rates of agreeableness increased most dramatically for adolescents from lower socio-economic backgrounds, with the researchers suggesting that students experienced the greatest change in peer groups through day-to-day interaction with academically inclined peers.

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