Last updated on 22 Jun 2018
When my grandfather was a boy of 14, he started a career as a fireman that led to him being the chief of the Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade in the 1930s. While he did this he gained an engineer’s certificate, but he was working, earning and building a career. He was not unusual at the beginning of the 20th century.
Left: My grandfather, John T. Wilkins, from a newspaper caricature upon his retirement, in The Argus, a now-defunct Melbourne newspaper.
My father, who managed to get himself ejected from the MMFB for conducting unauthorised and explosive chemistry experiments in the West Melbourne station, worked in radio from the age of 16. He never got a post-secondary qualification so far as I can discover. I left school at 16, and worked in a newspaper before I became a graphic artist and printer (without qualifications). I could have become a journalist if I had shown the determination, through a cadetship at the Herald and Weekly Times, even without matriculating.
However, now, students are expected to complete not year 10, or even 12, but a Bachelor’s degree, in order to even enter the professional workforce, and to have at least a Master’s degree to get ahead. This means that the very earliest one can start earning in full is around 24, a full decade later than my grandfather’s day, and if you continue to study, you might not begin to earn properly and start to even pay off your education debt before you are in your 30s.
Does anyone else see the problem here? Can we afford to have the bulk of our professional workforce delay their productive years until their 30s (and the subsequent starting of families until later)? Why are most of these professional degrees even in universities? I mean nursing, accounting, engineering, marketing, design, and their like?
With qualification inflation comes a reduction in productivity (not even mentioning that in creative fields, one does one’s best work in one’s 20s), and an added burden to graduates. And it seems to me that graduates are not even being prepared properly by higher education for practical fields. When I was a manager of a graphics department, I would preferentially not employ graduates of graphics programs because they had unrealistic expectations of time and design, and ended up bored and frustrated. I have heard from nursing managers that university trained nurses are generally useless for a year or more while they pick up the techniques and knowledge needed to do the job, and there are moves afoot in Australia, at any rate, to bring in “nursing aides” to do the work nurses traditionally did that involve bodily fluids and lifting.
So what the hell is going on? The answer is, I think, twofold. One is a move by governments, influenced by economic rationalists (that is, drywater free marketeers), to treat higher education solely as a sausage machine that grinds out workers. This explains why several governments have taken steps to reduce “traditional” university courses like languages, history and philosophy – they do not lead to employment and industry. It explains why an increasing emphasis has been put upon “industry linkage”, and implicit sanctions against those fields that can’t are increasingly applied by funding agencies. If the very function of education is to generate workers, then universities should not be, in effect, universities, but tech schools.
The other is a question of professionalisation. Nursing entered the university system in Australia because nurses wanted professional standing and respect. They wanted to be taken seriously by the medical profession and the administrative superstructure that managed the health industry (is health even an industry? Again with the corporate economic metaphor). But here’s the thing: when you get something into a university environment, university pressures ramp up in that field. You now have to do research and publish and get doctorates. Instead of teaching an industry relevant discipline, you move towards a theoretical and intellectual one. It’s what universities do.
So why are practical fields taught to full-time students who acquire massive debts and can do nothing productive, if industrial economic goals are the point of the degrees? Nobody seems to ask this question. But many people notice that the higher education system is broken.
Qualification inflation leads to a re-invention of the past, only now with added layers of infrastructure, power, and money. It serves the interests of career education administrators and policy wonks that this should happen. The next step will be to invent “theoretical institutes” in which field like basic science and humanities will be funded. Then the professional qualifications will reward graduates of these bodies, and the whole cycle will repeat. It’s almost like the Marxian theory of history played out in education.
My solution is this: devolve. Take professional qualifications out of universities (I’d even include law and medicine – tradition is no guide to sensible outcomes) and leave only those fields that are truly intellectual pursuits there. Make it possible to enter the workforce without qualifications, but have technical and industry-based qualifications and institutions that one can undertake while working in a field. Drop the level of education needed for industry back to what used to be called a certificate level, and let bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctorates for those who work in research-based fields.
Where medicine, law, and other professional fields have research based disciplines (clearly medical research does), then they can have a place in universities, but make them earn it. Otherwise, set up medical schools, law schools and nursing schools outside the university system, and remove the higher education tag from disciplines that do not need it.