Thanks to Ross Gittins (writing in the Sydney Morning Herald), we now know that the conventional wisdom about going to university turns out to be wrong. In fact, you won’t earn (much) more money with a bachelor’s degree than you will with a certificate III from TAFE, and because universities have over-enrolled students for the last several years, we have too many graduates who aren’t likely to find satisfactory employment.
A good degree reflects a level of knowledge, skill, literacy, and a love of learning, which is important for any future job.
Meanwhile, about half the jobs of the future are likely to be vocational, meaning you’re likely to be well-placed to get one if you pursue a TAFE pathway. You might earn about $250/week less, but Gittins says you’ll be better off with less debt and a more secure career.
Gittins overlooks a few key facts. First, even $200/week saved and compounded monthly over, say, a 40 year working career and earning a modest 5% results in a nest egg of about $1,300,000.
Second, he assumes there is equal job satisfaction in vocational and white collar careers, and that only those who have been prepared through high school to succeed at university should be taking the risk of loading up on a debt-fuelled degree.
This is a surprisingly elitist view of higher education. The point of the “demand-driven” system for universities was to open up access to students from under-represented and non-traditional backgrounds. Yet Gittins argues that we would be better off under the previous “capped” system where places at university were generally taken by those with the good fortune to have parents who ensured they attended schools that appropriately prepared them to achieve a sufficient ATAR.
The impact of opening up university access
The reality is that the strongest indicator of whether a young Australian is likely to go to university is whether one or both of their parents possess a degree. Cracking this intergenerational perpetuation of privilege was a key part of the thinking that underpinned opening up university access to traditionally underrepresented groups.
At the same time, Gittins bemoans the withering of TAFE and criticises both sides of politics for thinking that the right way to improve TAFE was to introduce competition from the private sector, rather than reform TAFE from the ground up. Without doubt the VET fee help scandal was a disaster for the sector, though Gittins doesn’t come clean on why the public TAFEs were so ripe for disruption.
The reality is that institutional ossification had set in, with TAFE suffering from an inflexible, aging workforce that was unwilling to adapt or change to meet the needs of students. By some measures, as much as 60 cents of every dollar of TAFE funding was going to overheads, not classroom teaching. To pull that apart would have required either a Labor government assaulting one of its foundational pillars of support - the union movement - or a Liberal government getting locked in a stalemate and fighting a potentially unwinnable battle.
What is a "good" degree?
The truth is somewhat different to what Gittins would have us believe. A good degree - that is, one that its recipient has worked hard to achieve and that reflects a level of knowledge, skill, literacy, and a love of learning - will be more valuable than ever in the emerging world of work. But Gittins is right that not enough of our university students are graduating with good degrees, or, in fact, with degrees at all. The attrition rate across the sector is at about 15%, a figure that represents billions of dollars of lost investment of taxpayer funds, billions of dollars of HECS debt, much of which is likely to go unpaid.
"Good" degrees need to ensure consistency of the learning experience for students.
The missing component in the post-secondary education system - both higher education and vocational - is consistency of quality in the learning experience. This, along with meaningful assessments, will ensure graduates - from both public and private providers - have all the requisite capabilities to get them onto a career pathway. The uncertainty that we all face regarding the future of employment means embracing the idea of lifelong learning will be essential for us to navigate our way to sustainable careers.
For both universities and TAFE’s, there is a tremendous opportunity - and need - to address the question of consistency of quality in the student learning experience. With the average Australian university enrolling more than 30,000 students, it is easy to see how students - many of whom live at home, commute to campus, have jobs and other family commitments - may feel lost in a process that is often impersonal and anonymising. Is it any wonder, in that circumstance, that we see many new graduates struggling to prove their worth in the job market?
With a vision to make the highest quality academic study support accessible to every student, regardless of their geographic or socio-economic circumstances, Jack Goodman founded Studiosity 14 years ago. He now is the Executive Chair of the company and continues to drive our mission to help more students, every day.