But what’s it for? An alternative to the monetarist valuation of University education

When an academic starts talking about the University system, you know straight away that there is a risk of the discussion becoming so self referential a reader would need an endoscope to appreciate the arguments. Having last week laid out a critique of the statistical underpinning of the recent Grattan Institute report on University funding (More Pennies for your thoughts – 28/09/12), however, I find myself compelled to do just that, in the spirit of addressing the essayist’s dilemma of “well its all very well to criticise, but what’s your alternative?”

So if I would pull down the monetarist temple that Andrew Norton, higher education programme director at the Grattan Institute, wants to build on the foundations of our Universities, what would I have us put in its place, and why?

Norton argues that fee increases would not impact on the decisions of individuals to attend University because:

“…a financially-based motivation cannot explain why so many students with good ATARs [scores in Australia’s University entrance examinations] choose humanities and performing arts, which have relatively poor employment and income outcomes.”

I suspect the inference drawn here is correct – University students in Australia, including the more intellectually gifted among them, often choose courses on the basis of personal interest or intellectual curiosity. Personally I hope this long continues…but I don’t think Norton sees things the same way. Rather, he seems to see this as an anathema – clever students with the potential to make money for themselves choosing to do something without an obvious net cash benefit? Like a Vulcan anthropologist on Star Trek, unable to understand this strange propensity of humans to undertake study that is not in some way to their immediate and personal financial advantage, Norton effectively proposes an experiment whereby we massively increase the economic cost on the individual, and then see how many people still behave ‘inefficiently’ in choosing to study on the basis of silly little things like social conscience or a desire to broaden themselves intellectually.

I have a number of intelligent and talented friends who have chosen to attend University later in life for reasons other than economic enrichment. One, after a youth spent traveling and teaching in Asia, chose to study for an education degree so he could apply his acquired wisdom to the inspiration and development of Australian school students. Another, a recent arrival in this country herself, is completing a degree in social work because she wants to help the disadvantaged and disenfranchised in our society. Would we really be better off as a nation if these people were to take courses in business management instead? Or give up their dreams of study to work waiting tables in a cafe?

Entangled with this question of why we undertake University education is the issue of exactly what the benefit is that we take from the experience. Norton argues that the value derived from a University degree arises from the combination of training – extra capacities graduates gain at university that they could not otherwise obtain – and signaling – in the form of a credential that distinguishes them in the labour market.

The concept here of being ‘distinguished’ in the labour market is particularly interesting in the context of drives to increase the uptake of tertiary education in our already relatively educated and well-trained population. It may have been true that a university degree was a significant badge of merit – a ticket, perhaps, to the inner circle of a stratified meritocracy – at the time of Australian Federation, when the 2,652 University students in the country represented around 0.2% of the young adult population. Or even on the eve of World War 2, when 14,000 students accounted for around 1% of the equivalent group. That badge begins to lose its lustre though as the University participation figure nudges 30% in the first decade of the 21st century (on the back of 757,000 students), and the Australian government is targeting 40% degree qualification in the adult workforce by 2015.

If you’re at the bottom end of that 30-40%, its unlikely you’re going to see much of a premium on your employment worth from that particular line in your CV. In the comically evil words of Buddy Pine/Syndrome in the Pixar movie ‘The Incredibles’ – “When everyone’s super – no-one will be”.

So what of training? Does university make people smarter? I would say no – it certainly gives an opportunity to apply intellect, but I doubt a graduate is any more gifted in terms of naked intelligence than they were the day they matriculated. Does it provide skills that will be useful in the workplace? Sure – but wouldn’t working for three to five years do that too? Or job-specific training? Seriously, if your primary interest is a desire to develop work skills and business acumen – and I can’t stress this enough – the best path I could recommend would be to get a job, apply yourself with rigor and passion, and seek guidance and advice from figures in the industry who you respect and admire.

Outside of the handful of specific professional University degrees (we’re talking law, medicine and their ilk, and perhaps technical science fields to some extent), I seriously doubt there are many learning experiences at University that could not be replicated – even bettered – through professional experience and mentoring. Major companies routinely employ top graduates as the core talent of their future workforce – and then what? They don’t say “right graduate boy (or girl), off you go to work”. No, they induct their new hires, retrain them, and teach them how to do a job – sometimes over a course of years.

So what am I saying here – is University a waste of time and money we should be steering kids away from? No – on the contrary, I see university education as a huge and life enhancing benefit to the individual that everyone should aspire to undertake at some point in their lives. With my heart on my sleeve I say that this experience should be freely available to anyone on the basis of their intellectual and emotional readiness to benefit from it – but with an economic realist hat on (albeit one tilted at a deliberately subversive angle), if society cannot afford the luxury of free education, the individual should pay, and should value and appreciate the opportunity their money is buying. So far I suspect Norton is nodding his head in agreement and mumbling “that’s what I said” – but where I think our perspectives really start to diverge is that I am not convinced that the benefits derived from University education are financial, and I think to sell it as such is dishonest and degrades the university experience.

“But…but…” stutters my inner Norton, his eyes widening in incredulous disbelief, “If you discount the economic benefits of a degree, what are you left with? Three (or four, or five) years of lost earnings and opportunity for career progression. Why on Earth would anybody choose to do that?”

University education is a sensational opportunity if – and this is the critical caveat – if you want to learn and to invest of yourself (your time, your energy, your intellectual capital) in doing that. It’s an opportunity to interact with and benefit from the wisdom and experience of brilliant and creative people, a chance to get exposed to new and challenging ideas. A chance to think deeply about who you are, who you can be, and how our society operates – what our values are, and what they should be. Yes, I’m approaching this from a biased perspective in that I would happily admit to valuing philosophical novelty and intellectual discourse above a newer car and a designer watch. But as long as I’m open about that perspective – and don’t try to pretend my views are some kind of universal truth you’d be crazy not to appreciate – you can judge for yourself the validity and relevance of my comments.

When it comes down to it, how many graduates in my own field of geology does does society ‘need’? The current situation in Australia is somewhat anomalous – with a rampant resource sector almost desperate enough to hire anyone able to differentiate a rock from a hard place – but any reader with the barest grasp of history should appreciate that this white-hot demand is a temporary aberration. Here’s the thing though, I still think more people – as many as possible – should study geology. Fundamentally, I’m not training people to log drillcore, or even to design mineral exploration programmes – although my teaching will place you in an intellectual space where both of these things will be supported – I’m trying to engage people in understanding the processes that shape the Earth.

At the recent quadrennial International Geological Congress meeting in Brisbane, I attended a public forum in which mining and resource ministers from several countries – including our own – were addressing the future resource needs of a growing global population. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that decisions – important, far-reaching decisions – are being made by governments all around the world today about this sort of issue – how to balance economic and social needs against environmental quality, traditional land use, and other amenity values. These decisions will affect you, me, our kids – all of us – long into the future. Do you really want to base your views on these issues on what Alan Jones says? Or Tony Abbott? Or Bob Brown for that matter? Seriously, if you want to engage in these debates and hold the decision makers to account, understanding the function of Earth systems should concern you deeply. I want to see an educated population able to, in that finest of Australian political traditions, “keep the bastards honest”.

Therein lies the true benefit of University education to an open and democratic society – producing an intellectually engaged, thoughtful populace ready and able to debate values and issues of significance from myriad perspectives, and contribute the societal wisdom needed to steer our nation, and indeed our planet, through the challenges of the future.


2 thoughts on “But what’s it for? An alternative to the monetarist valuation of University education

  1. thomasthethinkengine

    Beautifully written! But I must say that the counter-factual of how we would turn out if we had not gone to uni is not available to any of us. I have friends who didn’t go to uni and they appear to be as intellectually curious and well-read as I am. Maybe if you just do a bit of reading and thinking and talking in your early 20s you get the same benefit, and so does society? (While the university-educated set shows strong statistical differences, they could all be baked into the selection process.) It is tough to definitively prove either way.

    1. Rocky Subjects Post author

      Thanks for your comment. Fair point – I’ll happily accept that University is not the sole fountainhead of enlightened thinking and creativity. Shakespeare and Homer seem to have done okay for themselves despite not matriculating, after all (admittedly my allusion gets a bit shaky if Shakespeare’s cannon was actually written by Christopher Marlowe, but that’s a story for another day). My point at the end of this piece though was more that University education (or at least my vision of it – current education minister Simon Birmingham might choose to debate the point) provides a structure and environment to support that sort of intellectual development. You can certainly open yourself to new ideas and challenge preconceived values and societal structures without that, but I suspect the journey is facilitated if you spend several years immersed in a community where that is your chief occupation and the power structure around you is geared to supporting, encouraging, and rewarding that behaviour.


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