Karen Lomas
June 5, 2015

Who should go to University?


Another great big question mark at the top of the page, tells you we’re in yet another debate, and this one is very current in Australia, and very juicy. It’s a pretty polarising one about who should go to university.

I’ll share another good read, courtesy of The Conversation, (which generously allows bloggers to re-publish). Here, Loe Goedegebuure asks, Who should go to University? This is something upon which I have quite a firm position, summed up in my own questions: Who says you can’t? Why should it only be for the elites?

Much discussion around who university is intended takes place amongst educators, academics, career practitioners, and of course parents. Only last week at The Australian Catholic University (ACU) Career Practitioner’s Seminar, the incredibly informed and hilarious Greg Craven referred to the debate about university education; that being, “Is it about privilege or education?”

He stated that the propaganda being peddled about the “infestation” of low ATAR students is a distortion, and quite rightly, that the fear campaign around the lack of graduate jobs bends the truth about opportunities for university students. Australian jobs 2015 also highlights the areas of job growth and helps to clarify the real picture for job seekers.

One example Prof Craven offers is in the nursing profession, where a lot of negativity exists about there being “no jobs”. An increasing number of nurses are in the 50+ year old age bracket, and so that in itself is an indicator that by the time you/your son or daughter completes an undergraduate degree program, there will have been others who are moving out, or retiring.

Prof Craven states that, contrary to the media blown panic, attrition rates are steady, plus he also argues, “look at the situation for non-graduates!” He maintains meanwhile that ATARs are not an indicator of quality degrees or otherwise, but a signifier of demand based on a range of preferences and criterion. New courses will have a lower ATAR while they come to the attention of careers teachers and applicants; some applicants will make choices based on a lack of detail regarding units of study, class sizes, work placements/industry links etc.

Anyway, enough from me. Have a look at Leo Goedegebuure’s article titled ‘Who should go to University?, which argues broadly that “graduates still have good mid- and long-term outcomes”.

Here it is.
We have more people going to university in Australia than ever before. In 1971 only 2% of the population over 15 years old held a Bachelor’s degree, in 2013 it was 25%. Last year a whopping 1,149,300 people were enrolled in a Bachelor’s degree or above.

However, graduate employment rates are falling. This leads many to ask whether too many people are going to university. Should everyone go to university? Or just the correct number to be able to fill highly skilled jobs in Australia?

More education, the more benefits for all

Philosophically, I am all in favour of providing a university experience to as many students as possible. The positive external effects of a highly educated population include reduced crime rates and better health outcomes with associated lower public costs. Equally, it leads to stronger societies and communities, stronger democracies and, although slowly, it helps in reducing socio-economic inequalities.

And we should not forget the formative impact that “going to college” has on individuals, ranging from personal growth to greater job satisfaction once graduated.

While universal higher education is a positive goal in many aspects, not everyone will have the ability necessary to complete a degree. A recent report to the US Senate provided a painful reminder that universal tertiary education is not only about enrolling students, but equally about making sure they graduate and that subsequently they are in a position to repay their loans. Repayment, as the data shows, goes hand in hand with completion and finding a job.

Ensuring their students can complete the degrees they are enrolled in is universities’ first responsibility.

While some may look at graduate employment rates and contend we have an oversupply of graduates, I fundamentally disagree. Not only is the middle- and long-term outlook for university graduates still pretty good, in a knowledge-based economy there is no limit on the level of educational attainment. The higher and the better educated a country, the more competitive it becomes.
This point is illustrated by the recent report of the World Economic Forum. The report is based on a classic economic model in which a sound tertiary education system is a prerequisite for a skilled, well-educated workforce and a vibrant innovation system, which are the two pillars of all advanced economies.

Graduates need to be broadly educated

A well-educated workforce doesn’t mean narrowly trained graduates in highly specialised and professional positions. Sure, we do need those – as anyone undergoing surgery or spending some time in a dentist chair will attest. But for an innovative society that is strongly service-based we need well-educated graduates who are the motor for process and product innovation.

This, in turn, means “T-shaped” graduates who possess in-depth disciplinary knowledge (the vertical bar of the T) but who also combine this with skills and abilities not specific to just one area (the horizontal top bar of the T).

These well-educated people can work in teams and have a capacity for deep listening. They can communicate and are instilled with an entrepreneurial spirit that enables them to create new jobs rather than venturing out to a pre-populated labour market.

This then is the second responsibility that is bestowed on universities. It is not only about completion but completing with the right set of skills and abilities.

This is not to say that nothing is happening. Far from it.

To take some random examples, over the last four years the University of Technology, Sydney almost doubled its enrolments in first-year chemistry from 650 to over 1,000, accompanied by significantly improved pass rates and reduced attrition. Innovation and design labs exploring design thinking are popping up across the country.

But, as a sector, many of our approaches to teaching and learning are still traditional and many are antiquated.

This needs to change if we truly see university education as part of the engine room of a competitive, innovative society in the most dynamic socio-economic region of the world. This is not only about resourcing, it also is about “having skin in the game” as the US Senate report so aptly frames it.

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