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Time to re-evaluate higher education

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.J Wilkins 1st.jpg

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.

13 Comments

  1. Anonymous Anonymous

    Q. Does Australian higher-ed do as much teaching with adjuncts and grad students as American higher-ed?

  2. “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.”

    I agree with that. However, there are too many entrenched interests, so it probably won’t happen.

  3. Schenck Schenck

    I like the idea of Theoretical Institutes for actual, ‘universal’ education, seems like that is more likely than that anyone would pull the technical-professional programs out of universities. Those programs bring a lot of money to the Universities and Colleges, they really don’t have a choice but to keep them.

    It used to be that a person what was equivalent to the modern primary education, because they wanted to enter the preisthood. Eventually that level of education became expected of everyone, and now a high school is compulsory nearly into adulthood and usually provided entirely free.

    Maybe we can hope for something else, but expect that there will be big reforms that bring down the price of a Bachelor’s degree, maybe even streamline it so that people can at least finish in 4 years (instead of today where so many people take more than 4 years to finish).

  4. I’ve been arguing something very similar for more than twenty years!

  5. schenck schenck

    Also, if I can just add another comment, I work as a tutor for a ‘pre-nursing’ program (students that are taking requirements for our campus’s nursing program), and these students are /seriously/ under pressure to do this sort of thing. We’re a 2 year college, and we’ve had a good number of students realize that an associates in nursing isn’t going to cut it, they’ve even been told that by hospital hiring staff, and they’re starting to move over to different campus’s with Bacherlor’s programs. BUT, at the same time, they need to, you know, actually learn how to work in a hospital, so some of them even just volunteer for free to work at a hospital to get the experience, these aren’t easy volunteer tasks, they’re working in burn units and the like too.

    So there’s qualification inflation AND the demand for years of ‘in service’ experience too!

  6. bob koepp bob koepp

    “Is health even an industry?”
    Over fifty years ago, Eisenhower (remember him?) warned the American people about an ascendant “military industrial complex.” Unfortunately, the American people didn’t listen to him. Now, in addition to that monster, we’ve got a “medical industrial complex” and an “educational industrial complex.” These complexes are slowly killing American society, from the inside.

    • That’s just another way of saying that special interests and oligarchies develop over time unless they are kept in check. Lately, the US has been taken over by these groups through the clever use of propaganda and PR (the same thing, really).

  7. Adam Adam

    From an American perspective, I think that we face a similar problem,

  8. Adam Adam

    From an American perspective, I think we face a similar problem, though a lot of the details are different. For one thing, several states have decent Community College systems. I would love it if half of American university students went to CC instead… many of them have no place at a university. The flip side is that students need better education before getting to university.

    Among the four-year programs, there are a few different types of institutions/programs… the research focused, the liberal arts, and tech schools (engineers, etc).

    I think that much of the drive for universal college attendance comes from people who see it as a way to increase socio-economic mobility, rather than focusing on economic growth or job training.

  9. Adam Adam

    From an American perspective, I think we face a similar problem, though a lot of the details are different. For one thing, several states have decent Community College systems. I would love it if half of American university students went to CC instead… many of them have no place at a university. The flip side is that students need better education before getting to university.

    Among the four-year programs, there are a few different types of institutions/programs… the research focused, the liberal arts, and tech schools (engineers, etc).

    I think that much of the drive for universal college attendance comes from people who see it as a way to increase socio-economic mobility, rather than focusing on economic growth or job training.

  10. Adam Adam

    From an American perspective, I think we face a similar problem, though a lot of the details are different. For one thing, several states have decent Community College systems. I would love it if half of American university students went to CC instead… many of them have no place at a university. The flip side is that students need better education before getting to university.

    Among the four-year programs, there are a few different types of institutions/programs… the research focused, the liberal arts, and tech schools (engineers, etc).

    I think that much of the drive for universal college attendance comes from people who see it as a way to increase socio-economic mobility, rather than focusing on economic growth or job training.

  11. Katie Katie

    As a college graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree, I have seen the magnitude of these problems firsthand. First, a glut of people in the workforce with higher degrees means that employers demand ever-higher levels of education in order to even be considered for a job. You can hardly blame them, since a degree is one of the few tangible criteria they can use when wading through literally thousands of applications.

    Second, academic degrees have become highly specialized and non-transferable for the same reasons, so that if you want to get anything like a good start in the workforce, you need to already know what, specifically, you want to do with your life by your first year or two of college at the latest.

    Thirdly, yes, colleges do little to nothing to prepare you for any actual jobs in non-academic fields. I was a Geology major, and have given up hope of finding a related job because I have no experience with GIS, GPS, field work, data collection, and all the other practical work of conducting environmental assessments or the like. Maybe that just makes me a bad geologist, but I still have a degree. Employers know that simply getting a BA is no real indication of aptitude or ability for most jobs (at least in the U.S. system), so they require some other evidence in the form of work experience. Yet that same proof of competence (and, indeed, the competence itself) is impossible to acquire without first passing through many levels of unhelpful and increasingly expensive education that don’t teach you much relevant information.

    I long ago lowered my sights to look at internships with organizations I was interested in rather than real jobs, yet even then, most INTERNSHIPS (especially, but not exclusively, those that offer a stipend or some form of compensation) are reserved either for current students or for graduates with advanced degrees. So I’ve been a secretary for the past two years — a position which I got because my employer was impressed by my degree and the college I went to, but which I despise and at which I am not particularly competent).

    No job that I have looked into will seriously consider anyone with less than a) a Master’s degree or b) a Bachelor’s degree (in that specific subject) and several years of experience in the field. I am not applying for overly specialized jobs, here. Most of them are along the lines of research assistant, cub reporter, editorial assistant, junior field tech, intern, etc. Anyone who’d received basic training could do them. The question of who can do them the BEST is, for most of these positions, not particularly well informed by what degrees a person has. Meanwhile, gaining all these expensive degrees has cost said candidates time they could have been using to learn the skills appropriate to the job — and, also importantly, deciding whether they actually want to/are able to do that job or not.

    If you are, like many people I know, intelligent, adaptable, creative, and hardworking, yet unsure exactly what’s right for you, you are between a rock and a hard place (or, as we say in geology, up schist creek).

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