Lessons from High School and University

When I was a teenager in a State High School in a regional town, I only knew one person in the classes that preceded mine that had gone to University. I knew quite a few who had gone to be trained as teachers at Teachers Training College. In those days Universities did not train teachers. This task was left to specialist training organisations.

From the class of my final year of school, three of us went off to University which was deemed an extraordinary outcome.

But of course in those days employment opportunities were vastly different from what they are today.

In Queensland schooling was only compulsory until age 14. At the end of grade 8 we sat for our Scholarship Exam and then made a choice about further education. Many of my schoolmates left school at this juncture. Most went into employment as juniors in retail outlets, apprentices in local businesses or into unskilled jobs in the Railway, Local Government, pastoral and agricultural undertakings etc.

As a consequence, the majority of those who were not particularly academically gifted were employed, doing something useful, learning how to manage their finances and contributing in a meaningful way to the local economy.

Today we have a perverse situation where not only are we trying to keep such children in school we are trying to coerce them into University education.

About twenty years ago, I was approached by some high school teachers who were complaining how disruptive some of the boys in their classes were. With the concurrence of the principal I was able to put together a program which took about a dozen of the so-called “troublemakers” out of the school for a day a week and placed them with local employers. I was chair of the local branch of Commerce Qld and therefore had the ability to co-opt local employers into the scheme.

Interestingly none of the employers had any complaints about the boys. In fact within a month or two several had been offered jobs in the small businesses where they worked.

It is not hard to see what is going on here. By and large these young fellows were compelled to stay at school even when school was of little value to them and their presence disrupted the teaching of others. They were little suited to the class room and were doomed to fail academically which would have been demeaning and contributed to a low sense of self-esteem.

In the workplace the students found there were useful and meaningful things for them to do. Whilst when attending school they had high rates of absenteeism (and frankly their teachers were pleased when they didn’t turn up) they religiously turned up for their work assignment day.

Now I don’t suspect that there has been a huge change in this respect. There are more than likely many young people, particularly boys, who are captured by the education industry who are likely not to gain much from additional schooling but who would benefit from some form of employment which would utilise their practical skills and where experiential learning might increase their skill base.

I don’t know if things have changed, but at the time we ran the program mentioned above, Government schools were rewarded for high retention rates. It didn’t seem to matter so much what students learnt at school so long as they turned up. This was a perverse performance indicator which was not helpful in getting good student outcomes.

The educational outcomes according to gender have shifted in recent decades. Whereas once males dominated scholastic results in both schools and universities, females now achieve better than males. Indeed some authorities on education believe that the feminization of curricula and teaching techniques now unduly favours females. Jennifer Buckingham from the Centre for Independent Studies maintains that contemporary teaching methods, such as continuous assessment and more collaborative techniques work well for girls but not boys. This is exacerbated by the fact that often in their late teens, the emotional development of girls can be up to two years ahead of boys.

Now, unfortunately, our schools are lagging behind those of other developed countries in terms of the basic skills being acquired by the students in their charge. Employers are complaining that their expectations regarding numeracy and literacy of those completing high school are less than desirable. Our universities are running remedial classes for undergraduates so that they may have the ability to properly participate in their university tuition. There are many factors contributing to these educational shortcomings – and I have written extensively about the issue in other essays – but learning in our schools can hardly be helped by having students in the class that don’t want to be there, are not suited to the classroom and disrupt the learning of others.

Unsurprisingly these deficiencies in school education have in recent years been mirrored in universities. Apparently the terminology in Australia is degree inflation whilst in the US it is called credentialism. In essence it is about ensuring that more and more jobs require a university qualification.

The Rudd Labor government in 2008 decided (with no obvious supporting research) that we should have a target of ensuring 40% of 25-34 year olds should hold a bachelor degree or higher. That target has almost been achieved. A recent report showed that 33.7% of males aged 25 – 34 held bachelor degrees and 45.1% of women in the same age group had similar qualifications. (Note again the dominance of female over male graduates.)

But rather than adding to the productive capacity of our society, this educational trend has merely ensured that more and more graduates are employed in a capacity that doesn’t use their university-acquired skills. Andrew Norton from the Grattan Institute believes that up to a third of employed graduates are in roles that don’t require a university degree. The problem is exacerbated by job advertisements asking for university degrees when in fact none are required. This trend ensures those without university qualifications are held out of employment. Perversely, university educators then point out that having a university degree significantly improves a candidate’s employment opportunities, a result only achieved by calling for applicants with degrees even when the job doesn’t require such education!

So this trend not only serves to reduce job opportunities for those without degrees, it results in employment for graduates that has reduced chances of providing them with meaningful work. As a result we have excluded non-graduates from employment and placed graduates in jobs where they are unlikely to feel fulfilled. Now isn’t that a wonderful outcome!

My own experience would attest to the fact those who come into roles where they feel a little stretched derive the greatest job satisfaction. By requiring applicants to have degrees where the job doesn’t require such skills dooms many to boredom in their jobs.

These factors are instrumental in devaluing university education. This is manifested in a number of ways.

Firstly, because university degrees are so common the initial additional salary bestowed on graduates compared with non-graduates has greatly diminished in the last decade.

Secondly the pressure to graduate more students (particularly full fee paying international students) makes us suspicious that academic standards are being compromised and thus degrees are consequently being devalued. (When I did my engineering degree only 50% of my classmates passed each of the first three years. Whilst modern educators would complain that was a waste, it certainly highlighted that an engineering degree was a valuable commodity!) In their haste to inveigle more young people to become degree students Universities have shamelessly lowered their standards for admission. This increases the likelihood that many who finish high school are lured into degree courses who might more profitably undertake traineeships, cadetships or apprenticeships. It is unfortunate that academic learning is promoted so strongly at the expense of experiential learning.

It is worth considering, as well, the effect of the prevailing social ethos of protecting our children from failure. It seems that we must protect our young people from failure at all cost. In our schools everybody must get a prize! Participation, however effectively, is deemed enough to be rewarded. But those fragile egos can’t be forever sheltered from life’s realities. Many will have to face up to the brutality of the real world as soon as they have to apply for a job! Oft times a job advertisement will attract hundreds of applicants, but only one applicant will be rewarded with employment. Learning how to cope with failure would seem to me to be far more useful than having your ego artificially propped up!

Well-meaning parents are sheltering their indulged progeny from confronting the real world. Their oft repeated assurances that their children are special and that they can have or be whatever they so choose is insulating their children from the realities their children must eventually face. This insincere approach to parenting devalues the efforts of those who work hard for their success and renders their children emotionally ill-equipped for failure when it inevitably has to be confronted.

[Those afraid of failure need to look at the history of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was a champion and he never gave up. Here is a chronological sketch of Lincoln’s road to the White House:

  • 1816: His family was forced out of their home. He had to work to support them.
  • 1818: His mother died.
  • 1831: Failed in business.
  • 1832: Ran for state legislature – lost.
  • 1832: Also lost his job – wanted to go to law school but couldn’t get in.
  • 1833: Borrowed some money from a friend to begin a business and by the end of the year he was bankrupt. He spent the next 17 years of his life paying off this debt.
  • 1834: Ran for state legislature again – won.
  • 1835: Was engaged to be married, sweetheart died and his heart was broken.
  • 1836: Had a total nervous breakdown and was in bed for six months.
  • 1838: Sought to become speaker of the state legislature – defeated.
  • 1840: Sought to become elector – defeated.
  • 1843: Ran for Congress – lost.
  • 1846: Ran for Congress again – this time he won – went to Washington and did a good job.
  • 1848: Ran for re-election to Congress – lost.
  • 1849 Sought the job of land officer in his home state – rejected.
  • 1854: Ran for Senate of the United States – lost.
  • 1856: Sought the Vice-Presidential nomination at his party’s national convention – got less than 100 votes.
  • 1858: Ran for U.S. Senate again – again he lost.
  • 1860: Elected president of the United States.

How would millennials cope with this?]

(Sourced from Snopes)

Of course this profligate approach to education (particularly University education) comes at a substantial cost to the taxpayer. Now the situation is exacerbated by the fact that many university graduates, becoming aware that graduate degrees don’t offer the employment opportunities that they once did, undertake postgraduate studies. Between 2006 and 2016 postgraduate students increased by 123%. It is reported that there are now more than 900,000 people with postgraduate qualifications. I doubt whether the additional utility this education provides society is worth the cost.

So what are my recommendations in the face of these failures of our education system? I believe we would be better served if:

  1. We had more and better pathways to get the less academically gifted out of our schools and into experientially –based vocational learning.
  2. We had more realistic University entrance requirements. This of course means we need to have higher expectations of our schools. Universities should be spared the burden of remedial teaching.
  3. We reversed the trend of degree inflation by only calling for degree qualifications in job advertisements where they were actually required and we gave greater status to vocational education and experiential learning.
  4. We brought up our children to understand they are not particularly special, that they can’t always be what they might aspire to be, and that failure is something we all have to confront (and learn from) in life.

2 Replies to “Lessons from High School and University”

  1. Ted, I picked up three themes from your essay.
    1. Education v’s employment for teen age boys
    My friends at the leading edge of education would agree that boys in about years 9 and 10 should not be in traditional classrooms. However, as the Federal Government controls the funding, and centralised bureaucracies insist on a ‘one-shoe-fits- all education delivery model, the chances for change seem unfortunately remote.
    2. The necessity or otherwise for a job to require a qualification
    My daughter is a 5th generation teacher who holds a Degree in Science and a Master’s Degree in Education. Her Grandmother’s Great-Aunt did not have any qualifications. I am sure my ancestor was a great teacher as seems to be my daughter. This case suggests to me that the ever-increasing demand for increased formal qualifications to do the same job will not diminish. I am not arguing it is right. I am arguing it is a trend where the long-term evidence suggests it will not go away.
    Another driver is our litigative society where someone without the appropriate qualification is deemed less worthy as an ‘expert’. Just look at the climate change or the child-care V’s early childhood education debates. While I personally find this a sad indictment on society, again I don’t see it changing quickly.
    3. The role of universities
    Based on the information I have, Universities seem to be forcing their lectures back to doing more research rather than just teaching. However, if you follow the money trail, full fee-paying students rather than research grants seems to be the commercial drive. While this remains policy, ‘bums-on-seats’ will probably prevail over the quality of graduates.
    In summary, I too remain somewhat pessimistic about what I see formal education system is currently delivering. That said, I personally remain committed to the value of education over no education (not quite your issue I agree). I believe the value of mentoring will become more important in time. In my personal view the world is changing and education will change with it; just probably slower than you or I would like.

  2. Ted,

    All true but unfortunately I cannot see anything changing too quickly. I have many friends who are retired or near-retired teachers, and it is a tough gig these days. I really think they should be paid more (lots more) to attract and retain very good graduated to a teaching career, and at the same time weed out the bad ones, but both wishes are unlikely to happen in the real wold.

    One refrain from the my teacher friends, who are a Bolshie lot in general, is about lack of job permanency for young teachers, and my standard answer is try being an electrician and see how you go – job permanency for a sparkie (or just about any job) certainly exists provided you work hard and do the job safely and well, but gets difficult if you can’t. They look stunned first time they hear this, as in fact they have very little experience of the real world themselves.

    Another little anecdote, in our day many adequately academic people never went on to uni, even when it was free, due to lack of belief they could get through. Seems there are a lot of huge HECS debts being racked up by some – one of Mark Latham’s ideas is for the university to pay the HECS debts of any of their graduates who were not employed after 5 years of finishing a degree. That would get some focus.

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