Wednesday, January 26, 2011


What are we attempting to do when we try to educate young Australians?

It's up to them to decide what they get out of tertiary education - but it would be nice if we had a guide as well. What sort of person is the 'ideal' Aussie?

This piece asks the question, rather than attempts to answer it:


It was the slick and dynamic Internet companies that first really pushed the message, because it was in their interests to suggest the world is rapidly becoming transformed. Buzzy little phrases ("the top-10 in-demand jobs in 2010 didn't exist in 2004") at first seemed so real they excited our imagination with the possibility. The message appeared to be reinforced by the physical changes in our lives. First we threw out those old video-cassette players for DVD's, only to then realise that we couldn't exist without blue-Ray. And computers! It seems no child can complete a primary-school project without one.

Much is changing, and yet so much else has remained the same. In America, for example, the fastest expanding industry over the past decade has been Homeland Security. Coupled with the most recent technological advances, this means that casuals who've been employed as airport security can now observe electronic images of (virtually) naked passengers. This may, or may not, represent progress; nevertheless it provides a sharp example of the limitations of the "transformative" paradigm.

The jobs are the same; it's really just the way there’re performed that has changed. Even in a dynamic field like IT, although the platforms may have significantly altered, the possibilities available to software designers this doesn't necessarily mean that the what they are attempting to do is different. The only thing that has altered is the specific way they go about doing whatever it is they’re trying to do. These are the issues that our universities will need to come to terms with swiftly in the near future.

The Dawkins reforms, which established the current system of Australian tertiary education, were first proposed in a Green Paper back in 1987. Many of the ideas it ushered in, such as the Higher Education Contribution Scheme and the huge expansion of the university sector, are now generally regarded as successful. Others have been more controversial. Julia Gillard's commissioning of the Bradley review of higher education opened the possibility that, some 20 years on, she would similarly reshape the sector. The ensuing 46 recommendations focused on further deregulation, which was coming anyway and, more controversially, the perceived elevation of "skills" (or specific job training) over "knowledge" (or broader intellectual understanding).

Broader social pressures are now beginning to impact severely on all the universities. At one time, not even so long ago, it was still possible to talk about the ivory towers of academe as if they were inhabited by Tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking, and largely male professors with little understanding of the supposedly "real world" outside their faculties. Today, of course, that image lives on only in Hollywood bearing little more relationship to reality than the depiction of Oxford undergraduate life immortalised in books like Brideshead Revisited. Although student-life is still fun, debauchery has (for the most part) ceased. Not many scholars have an "independent income" that they can rely on for support if they should fail. Increasingly, it's a person's ability to succeed in study that provides the vital signal in the jobs market-place that differentiates two candidates for the same job. In other cases (such as, and regrettably in my opinion, journalism) it now seems that possession of a vocational degree has become vital to simply get a foot in the door or take the first step on the career ladder.

It was Chairman Mao who famously said "let one hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend". Perhaps strangely for an autocrat, he insisted that this was the way to promote progress in the "arts and sciences". The Hundred Flowers movement was brief. Those who'd used the new freedom to express their criticism of the regime had been brought out into the open, identified, and where later viciously repressed. The Cultural Revolution which followed crushed any dissent; mandating a single path as the only one leading forward. Equally, the release of the Bradley review seemed to offer the prospect that educational alternatives would bloom to follow the needs and requirements of the economy. Students would be empowered. They would have the opportunity to choose the path of study that best fitted in their own vision of the future. The sector would become dynamic and responsive, changing to meet the needs of both the student body and industry. Most importantly, the winners and losers would be determined by the marketplace and there'd be no need for the dull hand of government intervention.

As an ideal it's terrific. Unfortunately in practice the government dominates all the choices that frame the sector, even though it's easier to pretend otherwise. This means the tertiary sector that today's first-year students are entering will be vastly different from the one they leave in a few years time. The biggest change will occur next year, when funding will follow the students. Unsurprisingly, this is predicted to lead to an increased number of applicants for already popular courses, such as law and marketing. It would, however, appear unlikely that areas such as foreign language studies will be receiving much of a boost in numbers as a result of the changes. This is despite the current government's continued protestations that linguistic skills will be increasingly vital in this new century.

Allowing individuals to make decisions in their own best interests won't necessarily produce the best overall result for our broader society. If a bright student wants to study law, either out of their own desire to learn about the subject or simply to help them line-up a job when they eventually leave university, that's up to them. But, despite all the talk of funding following the student, the reality is that the government is taking the critical decisions that will shape the choices available.

If jobs are really changing at the phenomenal rate that is being posited by the IT companies, then the idea of vocational training in the current three-year bachelor degree structure probably needs to be thrown-out, along with the physical structure (and administrative overheads) of the university. If, however, we believe China will still exist in a decade and that it will be even more important than at the moment (as seems likely) then surely it's up to the government to send some signals that it wants to boost our knowledge and engagement in this area. Failure to do so will mean that the future shape of our higher education institutions will be determined by the self-interested decisions of 18-year-olds. What's right for them individually might be completely wrong for us as a society.

As a start the government might indicate what sort of people it would like to see heading the public service in the next decade: bilingual graduates with classics degrees; mathematically-trained logicians, or people with a narrow vocational background who've attended a couple of short courses on management.

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