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Why the push for more degrees is a bad idea

Why the push for more degrees is a bad idea

University participation has been a hot topic ever since the Federal Government decided 40% of 25-34 year olds should have a degree by 2025. The target, set in 2010, has had its detractors, with many saying it compromised the quality of bachelor degree programs. But perhaps the aim was misguided in the first place.

In 2010, the Federal Government set what many considered an ambitious target to increase the number of 25-34 years olds with at least bachelor level qualifications to 40% by 2025. Some of these young adults were to come through the Australian education system; others through skilled migration. What few questioned, however, was why we needed 40% of our under-35s walking around with a degree.

On paper, it was a figure that grabbed headlines and yelled ‘education nation’. In reality, it missed explaining the point: higher education is all well and good, but what were we going to do with these degree-educated people? If this was a way to increase skills, why not include vocational education and training as well? If it was a way to encourage university level research, why not provide more funding for research, since teaching and research have separate financial support streams?

The term ‘knowledge economy’ cropped up, but it raises the question about what a knowledge economy actually looks like. Is it one where we design things, are creative and innovative? Use our brains in a way that is commercially viable (the economy part)? Because a bachelor degree, certainly one path to this end, is not the only path. By specifying a goal to be measured in bachelor degrees, it narrows the definition of outcomes such as skills, knowledge and research.

Moreover, although enrolments into university rose after the government uncapped the placements, this will not directly translate into the aims set out in the policy, namely for students to graduate with at least a bachelor degree. Increased enrolments will not necessarily correspond with increased bachelor degrees; in fact lowering the standard of entry, while allowing more students to access higher education, often sees students who are not capable of studying at that level drop out. And they exit with a HELP debt they cannot hope to repay soon.

Compromise and change

The return of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister and the subsequent Cabinet reshuffle has brought Senator Kim Carr to the post of Minister for Higher Education. After taking a look at the numbers, Carr indicated that the target could be one of the things to go under the new government due to the rapid uptake in enrolments leading to falling standards.

“I’m very concerned that there has been a rapid growth in the number of people participating in universities and concerned to ensure that proper equity is maintained in the Australian education system,” Carr said. “We have to also ensure that there is appropriate levels of quality in terms of the students that are entering the system.”

The ‘compromised education’ argument may be a thinly veiled attempt to reintroduce university placement caps to patch over the $3.8 billion the government removed from the tertiary education sector to fund the Gonski reforms at primary and secondary level—time will tell.

In the meantime, I’d like to see at least two other things:

  • A clear statement on the outcomes required to serve the ‘knowledge economy’. This will give us all a more transparent view on what we can do to achieve these outcomes. Each sector will, of course, have their own agenda, but at least we can argue our way towards the same objective.
  • A broader view of what constitutes skills and knowledge. It is not just bachelor degrees, but nor is it confined to tertiary education. Perhaps supporting knowledge and skills through ways other than traditional education are possible; innovation incentives, MOOCs and putting more money into skills experience programs such as apprenticeships and traineeships are some ideas.

So let’s all stand behind education, but can we please stop pushing for more degrees as if it is an end in itself?

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