University production line leads to nowhere

The university system is failing our young. A culture of irresponsibility within higher education has created conditions where the job market is being flooded with graduates seeking jobs in industries which do not need them.

Salaries for graduates are falling, as the rate of employment for graduates is falling off a cliff.

The culture of irresponsibility in higher education begins with the simple fact that too many people are going to university who probably shouldn’t be.

In 1950, one in every 267 Australian adults went to university. Today the figure is one in every 18 adults (including international students). Across Australia, around 1.2 million people are studying for a Bachelor’s degree or higher.

It is hard to know whether we should celebrate these figures or if they should give us cause to pause.

An uncomfortable truth is that even with the best teachers, not all of these people will go on to finish their courses. And it is unfair, even cruel, to encourage people to enter into higher education if they do not have the proficiency, or the capacity, to achieve decent grades.

This problem is so serious, yet so rarely addressed, that it has taken the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption to step in. The anti-corruption body released a report on the risks associated with the international student industry in April this year. It warned that “there is no simple solution that will effectively eliminate the gap between the capabilities of students and the academic demands of the universities”.

If this gap was not eliminated, ICAC warned, then corruption and exploitation would ensue in the form of widespread cheating, plagiarism, falsified documents, ghost-writing and diluted academic standards. As the Herald has detailed in a  number of reports over the past year or so, this has well and truly come to pass.

And with too many people attending university and the potential for corruption is on the rise, one of the saddest developments in higher education today is the decline of the humanities. Enrolments in the arts have been dwindling for decades. And for those who do graduate from the Arts, many lack proper training in primary research, expository writing or formal logic.

The decline in student numbers  in the Arts is perhaps not surprising, when you consider the median house price in Sydney is approaching $1 million, which reinforces the need for a degree to dispense a marketable  (read money making)  skill.

Apart from being marinated in ideology, Arts students are also drowned for three years in jargon-heavy theory with negligible application whatsoever to real life. A glance at a leading literature conference (an event where researchers come to meet) gives a ready sense of what today’s students have to put up with.

At the Australasian Association of Literature Convention, to be held this year at the University of Wollongong, conference titles such as “Networks of Normality: Rethinking (Anti) Normativity in Contemporary Critical Theory” were grist for the mill. Other sessions have titles such as “Non/fictive Bodies: Fleshing out Absence/Drawing Presence”.

To the “uneducated” person this is not just nonsense, this is badly written nonsense which perhaps underscores the rising disconnect between some avenues of academia and the rest of us.

If we find it difficult to face up to the reality that our university system is letting its students down, perhaps it is because many of us have a nostalgic and romantic perception of the experience of “higher education”. Some may wistfully imagine the sandstone spires at Trinity College, with bright-eyed youngsters spending hours on the lawns or in their teachers’ offices discussing their tutorial topics and latest grand theories.

But this dream bears little resemblance with the modern-day reality. Rather, a university campus is more likely to have a Starbucks than a sandstone spire. Teachers are too overloaded with administrative tasks to have much time for their students. And students themselves are too busy scrambling to pay the rent than to think about current events or new ideas.

Nor is the experience leisurely. Five years ago, research led by Helen Stallman of the University of Queensland found Australian university students suffered mental distress that were at rates five times higher than the general population. The most common complaint from the 6000 students screened, was that they were under financial strain.

The universities have been reckless in pursuing their new “business model”. There should be a clear obligation to their students to ensure their degrees are fit for purpose and they shouldn’t profit from misleading students into pursuing worthless degrees.

The risks involved in opening up the universities to almost anyone who wants to attend, and then coupling that with easy to access loans from the government, are only now starting to be realised.

Many students simply do not finish their degree and end up saddled with debt.   Those who do finish are often met with the depressing reality that they are just one of thousands in a growing marketplace glut.

Universities need to start taking some responsibility for the wellbeing of their students, their success, and future employment prospects. They also need to have accountability – some skin in the game – when it comes to students’ ability to repay their higher education loans. If they do not, then the smartest children of the next generation will simply decide not to attend.

This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

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