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Liberal thought supports the idea that if you have properly studied something, you have a good chance of being able to do anything (Image CC0 via pexels.com)

Universities are trying to produce graduates with the skills employers need now and in the future — except no-one really knows what those are. Dr Lee Duffield proposes a better approach.

THIS YEAR'S national report on university performance produced about the same result as a year ago and in the commentary on it about the same level of confusion.

The 2017 Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) survey, for new graduates’ satisfaction with their degrees – and a follow-up taken from their employers – showed 88% of students in the poll expressing satisfaction and 83.6% of employers saying those graduates were well enough prepared.

Journalists took out various angles, depending on their professional interests or company ideology, for example the Australian Financial Review declaring employers were happy with the outcome, The Australian saying that it showed up a poor lookout for the economy, and the ABC thinking the number of unhappy graduates looked high.

The whole exercise shows up a national problem: a narrow fixation on the jobs angle in university education and a general uncertainty about what education should be about.

NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN

Nothing new.

Dusting off a useful text from the 1960s has turned up a Teachers’ College lecturer, A. Barcan, observing sagely:

'... for most of its history Australian education has lacked both an informed public opinion and a developed educational theory.'

He identified a 'native Australian tradition' that met the needs of a pioneering society and continued much unchanged from the 1830s to the mid-1950s, before an “educational revolution” finally started getting under way.

It was a tradition, said Barcan, 

'... distinguished by such features as stress on equality of opportunity, reliance on the state, increasingly centralised control, ‘fair average’ standards fitted to the majority rather than an elite, a paucity of theory, emphasis on social harmony rather than individualism as a social end of education, and a tendency to prefer education that was cheap, brief and practical' (in RWT Cowan ed. (1966), Education for Australians, Melbourne, Cheshire, pp 22-23).

In the universities sector, which has continued on that line even in recent times, we’ve had a rapid expansion of the number of university places available in the name of opportunity for all and the hope of building a future “smart” economy — and then an effort by governments to backpedal on the cost.

Australian students pay as much as 30% of their costs through the HECS loans and universities recruit students heavily from overseas – mainly China – bringing in fees money for now, but with potential problems around longer-term financial assurance and academic standards — beginning with there being much unease about the quality of the IELTS English language tests.

GETTING TOUGHER

It is getting tougher for universities to deliver a product that pleases anybody.

The last phase of tension over resources began with the decision of a Labor Government five years ago to lift the cap on places, causing a rush for enrolments and expansion, now off-set by last month’s decision of the Turnbull Government to impose a new cap to get back $2 billion from the sector.

George Morgan, an Associate Professor in Culture and Society at Western Sydney University, reflected the concerns of many with these developments, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald in December:

The 'uncapped era' had benefits and costs. It widened access by bringing in people who in the 20th century would not have gone anywhere near a university. This presented pedagogical challenges for those of us teaching 'first-in-family'/ working class/ minority students, but university managements have generally not provided sufficient resources to allow us to meet these challenges.

Rather than employing more staff to deal with increased student numbers, they cut corners while telling the world they had ‘improved productivity’. This meant casualising and outsourcing teaching work, cutting face-to-face hours or replacing them with online. Many of the new students have been short-changed and this is reflected in the drastic increase in the numbers of those who fail to complete their degrees.

WILL THE AD CAMPAIGNS DELIVER?

Similar dynamics underscore the satisfaction figures being publicised this month, in the expansionist environment, of imposing new buildings and high-cost advertising and student marketing campaigns.

In keeping with tradition, those entering with strong matriculation scores, and graduating from higher-end courses with vocational applications, do well, get good jobs and make a good impression.

Those entering with weak matriculation scores, and starting in broad non-vocational courses, can upgrade on the way through or later via add-on vocational credentials — though most do not manage this and it comes out in the survey figures.

(As an example, one Queensland university admits students to a general Science degree at OP 13 or Australian ATAR Rank 71, while entry to a specialised, much more assuredly vocational, Science degree to become a paramedic requires 6 or 89; how to get the former group a proper good deal?)

In straight language, a well-intentioned opening of the system has not been followed up with the investment it would take – by the government or the universities – to provide well for diversified cadres and levels of students. Not much logic is required to see how standards of professional preparation, research and thought, generally, can be at risk.

Crude ideas about getting business interests to write out a menu card for themselves and provide tertiary job training to meet their demands – “cheap, brief and practical” – are being heard in some quarters of the government and industry, as they have been for decades.

However, they come up against the complexity of the modern economy and uncertainty about what it will need in the immediate future — business don’t really know.

WHAT IS EDUCATION ANYWAY?

If you accept that education is education at any level and might be about more than the immediate jobs drive, consider also liberal thought — which works around cultivation and self-cultivation of the individual, free person.

Liberal thought supports the idea that if you have properly studied something, you have a good chance of being able to do anything.

If you are well read and empowered by other deep studies, you can competently take charge of your own vocational search and become a useful thinker in society across a whole range of human activities.

It is the idea that universities putting resources into best academic standards will be bound to produce good outcomes for the professions, research, society in general.

OPTIONS FOR 2018

For that, in 2018, the universities would need to cut back on their favourite big ticket expansion items, apologise to their academic staff and get back to supporting them well — with good scholastic performances by students alike.

Alternatively, they might continue blind expansion at a crazy pace, but understand that they are not ordinary corporations and should, once again, skew their resources towards producing quality outcomes: good degrees by any world standard.

Considering students, it would require both: cultivating the intellectual high-achievers, but also finding a way to provide more for – and get more out of – the additional large numbers expensively recruited from the front rows of the classrooms, China, or wherever else.

It might be possible, depending on the strength of a learning and thinking tradition in Australia.

The point might be further illustrated by taking a look along the line to glimpse what is happening with children in schools, the next generation of students or “customers” for higher education — which is the subject matter for the article following this one.

Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic. He was a member of the governing Council of the Queensland University of Technology and writes regularly on higher education.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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