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University education: ticket for life or shackled for life?

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(Education Minister Christopher Pyne, AKA Liar Liar, Pants-on-Fire)

The number of university grads looking for full-time work is the now the highest since 1992. In the light of a shrinking job market and threat of increased student debt thanks to Abbott’s deregulation policy, Rachel Poole asks why students are still encouraged to enrol.

NEW STATISTICS from the Australian Tax Office (ATO) released last week show the number of university grads with growing debt is rising, confirming what any grad will tell you — that it is difficult to find full-time work and starting salaries are low.

The ATO figures show the number of uni grads with debts above $40,000 has doubled in just two years to more than 100,000. Similarly, now only one in five Australians with uni debt is paying it back — down 2,000 people in one year. This, despite the fact that the number of people owing student debt rose by over 140,000 in the same period.

According to a Graduates Careers Australia survey, 32 per cent of university grads who wanted a full-time job were still looking for one four months after completing a degree in 2014. This is the highest number since the previous record was set in 1992.

This data follows a global trend of rising youth unemployment and young graduates who were promised if they worked hard and educated themselves, at least middle class prosperity would be assured. Of course for so many kids, this is a fantasy. In allegedly the world's richest economy, U.S. graduates owe a combined $1.2 trillion in debt.

Despite promising not to raise fees, the Abbott government's solution is to deregulate fees so universities can increase costs and drop the repayment threshold to $50,638 as part of its higher education deregulation package. Yes, the solution to increasing student debt and fewer jobs is to enforce earlier repayments and make the fees higher. So in light of a shrinking job market and increasing student debt, why are students still encouraged to attend university and why are so many admissions being accepted?

Before going back on his promise not to increase education fees, Pyne also promised not to cap university places

The law graduate glut is a prime example of what could be labelled irresponsibility on the part of our educational institutes. The number of law students has doubled in the past decade, with more than 12,000 graduates now entering a job market that comprises a total of 60,000 jobs each year.

There are 36 law schools in Australia, while many firms take less than 36 graduates each year. The University of Western Sydney and Deakin University law schools have increased undergraduate enrolments at triple the rate of the university's overall growth. Queensland University of Technology's law faculty has increased at more than double the rate of the overall university.

Deans often defend the glut by saying a law degree is a useful "generalist" qualification and will be useful for whatever field they enter. This may be true, but doesn't then justify why law degrees are among the most expensive undergraduate options. Usually degree prices correlate with what graduates can expect to earn in the work force, however, by labelling law as a "generalist degree", universities have essentially pulled the coup of providing an inferior product without a drop in price. 

Unfortunately, the fact is education is increasingly just another mechanism for profit. Someone is making bank off the backs of Australian kids.

 

Some vice chancellors admit the sector is steadily heading for privatisation, like so many resources that were previously owned by the community. Like any self-serving corporation, the leaders of these institutions are seeing their salaries grow disproportionately to the rest of the staff. For example, the head of James Cook University enjoyed an increase in salary of 65 per cent in four years — from $559,000 in 2010 to $927,000 in 2014.

In a society awash with capitalism, the only justification for existence is profit. Universities are, at the heart of it, providing a product for consumers to purchase. Like any successful business, they have large marketing budgets, blitzing TV screens, billboards and bus stops in an attempt to sell an expensive, speculative product to teenagers. These consumers are sold the idea that this education is their ticket to a good life, but in a world where the middle class is hollowing out, there is no ticket and for most debt is a huge burden.

It is my belief that universities provide so much more than a ticket to employment. They are centres of opportunities, socialising, expanding your mind and discussing with like-minded people. However privatisation of such experiences that cannot be quantified has trivialised education into a commodity.

Australia, and most western nations, have strict consumer protection laws. If you buy a dishwasher and it fails to wash your dishes, you are entitled to a refund or repair. Why shouldn't universities be subject to the same protections? Before starting the course, students should say the purpose of this purchase, be it "I just love this subject" or "I've dreamed of being an engineer since I was a child." Subject to conditions such as excellent grades, extracurricular activities, interview skills etc. if the product fails to deliver the desired outcome, why shouldn't a refund be offered?

Universities have targeted marketing schemes that prey on teenagers to offer them one of the most expensive purchases they will ever make. Thousands of students worldwide are struggling under the weight of student debt, unable to buy a home, ill-equipped to obtain employment to pay off the debt.

In the U.S. graduates are unable to write off the debt in bankruptcy, meaning they are shackled for life. This is a kind of modern slavery. 

Of course universities are more than just job factories, they are centres of learning, research and inspiration and ought to be considered a refuge from the relentless obsession with profit. But in a world existing only of products and consumers, why not embrace your customer rights? Demand a refund now!

You can follow Rachel on Twitter @the_rvj or check out her blog http://thebowmenreport.wordpress.com.

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