EVAN WILLIAMS. University education: the monster in the room.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that anyone lacking a rewarding occupation must be in want of a degree. A university education is not only a good in itself, but an indispensable passport to a satisfying career and a secure lifestyle. It follows that universities should be open to all, that everyone should be encouraged to take a  degree and that greater public investment in higher education is the key to national progress and prosperity.  All of which, as we are now discovering to our cost, is nonsense – a dangerous fallacy that politicians on all sides are unwilling to confront. 

The rot set in (it pains me to say so) with the Whitlam government’s hefty increase in schools funding in the 1970s. That served a valuable purpose – correcting gross inequalities between the public and private sectors, and increasing opportunities for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. But Gough’s reforms helped entrench a belief that more money is the key to better educational outcomes. Things got out of hand when the new spirit of budgetary largesse was extended to the tertiary sector. And for this (it pains me again to say so) the blame rests with the Hawke government, and the much-lauded educational reforms introduced in 1989 by former minister John Dawkins.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. We needed more universities to meet the needs of a growing population and a growing demand for higher education.  And what better way to achieve this than by rounding up our technical colleges and training schools and calling them “universities”?   Of course, our new universities would all require funding at an appropriate level, and the costs would  run into billions. But think of the benefits – a better educated workforce, more scientists and skilled professionals and a nation better prepared to meet the challenges of an increasingly globalised economy.  And if students couldn’t afford university fees, the government would lend them the money, adding more billions to the costs. According to figures from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Budget Office, spiralling taxpayer-funded student loans look set to blow out to $11 billion a year by 2026 – or 56.3% of public debt.

So where do we stand today? The short answer is nowhere.  By all accepted measures, Australia has one of the lowest levels of educational achievement in the developed world. Roughly one-third of Australian university students fail to finish their degree courses within six years.   And according to a Fairfax media report last year, up to 60% of students are being admitted to courses without reaching the advertised admission standard.

I’m no expert on tertiary education, having dropped out of an arts course at Sydney University in the 1950s to become a cadet journalist.  But speaking with all the authority of a sentimental old fogey, I fondly remember a time when the education system seemed to work well at every level. If you finished Year 8 you got the Intermediate Certificate (the “Inter”), two more years got you the Leaving, and if you were lucky enough, or bright enough, another year allowed you to matriculate and advance to one of the fields of higher learning – Science, Law, Medicine, Engineering, Music , the Humanities (and one or two others). Thanks to Menzies, in one of his less celebrated innovations, the government would pay your university fees if you obtained a reasonable pass at school. So, while the best and brightest went on to higher study, colleges of technical and further education (TAFEs) ensured a regular supply of skilled tradesmen. And plenty of youngsters got along well without formal qualifications of any kind. (I’ll spare some of my best friends the embarrassment of seeing their names in a list of high achievers without letters after their names.)

Now, of course,  a degree is needed for everything. We have more and more universities, more and more courses, more and more degrees, and millions more students. It’s the accepted wisdom that you need a degree for any job you choose, and with tertiary education virtually privatised, our universities are eagerly competing for customers.

Perhaps you aspire to some kind of middle-management role in industry? Why not enrol at the University of New England and become a “Bachelor of Organisational Leadership” – or a “Bachelor of Sustainability”, or a “Bachelor of Exercise and Sports Science”?  If that sounds a bit hard, or not to your taste, you can design your own degree course. The UNE is advertising a “bespoke course” (their word)  which allows you to choose two, three or four units from any of the undergraduate or post- graduate courses on offer. And if you don’t want to sign up for a public TAFE course, there are plenty of private vocational colleges ready to fill the gap. More than 4,000 of these so-called Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) are in business around the country.  Opposition shadow minister Kim Carr estimates that the Turnbull government is paying them  $5.4 billion a year for their services – with no safeguards in place to guarantee standards or outcomes.

I’m not sure where all this is leading, but the signs are not promising. Once we managed to get along with two compulsory levels of education – primary and secondary. Now, with university training  more or less obligatory, we have three – and if pre-school standards are mandated. as you can bet they will be, we’ll finish up with four. Perhaps a little less emphasis on “degrees” and more on the three Rs in primary schools would make a difference. We may also need better teachers. When I was at school, boys who got top marks at public examinations usually went on to be teachers in their subject, encouraged by government bursaries and a “basic wage” paid to students in university courses. (Most girls, of course, went on to do “home duties”.)

So let’s  keep our fingers crossed.  Whenever I read,  as I often do, that Singapore is well ahead of Australia in levels of educational attainment, I remember Lee Kwan Yew’s notorious prediction that if Australians continued on the way we were going we were  destined to become the “poor white trash of Asia”.  I hate to think that Lee may be proved right. It’s time we accepted that the present system isn’t working. But it takes a brave politician these days to turn back the clock.

Evan Williams is a former newspaper editor and Walkley Award-winning journalist.  He wrote speeches for Gough Whitlam and several state premiers, and ran the NSW government’s cultural sector from 1977 to 2001.  He wrote film reviews for The Australian for 33 years.

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John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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