Higher education narratives

According to the SMH report of the latest ANU Poll:

UNIVERSITIES are no longer seen primarily as centres of learning but as corporations most concerned about the bottom line.

And indeed 48% of respondents agreed with universities ‘mainly care about the bottom line’ compared to 39% who agreed that ‘universities mainly care about education’.

Yet 71% say universities are doing an excellent or good job (compared to 46% saying the same of public schools). Perhaps the bottom line/education question was a dumb one, since the two are interdependent – no education, no money; no money, no education. Yet it appeals to the narrative of the public education lobby, a narrative faithfully reinforced by the SMH over many years.

The public education narrative was also reflected in other answers. 70% of respondents thought that it had become more difficult for students from poorer families to get into university over the last ten years.

There is no perfect data source on this issue, but none of what exists is consistent with the public perceptions. Using census parental occupation data as a proxy, low SES attendance rates increased between 1996 and 2001, and were stable between 2001 and 2006. And as I noted last month, low SES students in 2007 had their second-highest share of commencing places since statistics started being collected in 1991.

The most interesting question in the survey asked about credentialism. 61% agreed that employers hire university graduates for jobs that could be done as well or better by people without university degrees.

Certainly large numbers of graduates are employed in jobs that don’t require degrees. What we don’t know a lot about is how actively employers prefer graduates for non-graduate jobs.

But if people believe that employers are preferring graduates, this will affect behaviour, with people seeking university education they do not need, except to get themselves an interview.

40 thoughts on “Higher education narratives

  1. I guess what this survey tells you is that people have opinions on many things, including things they have no idea about. How many people do you think actually have any idea at all what, say, the 20 biggest employers in Australia are looking for in employees ages under 25, or, for that matter, what type of jobs they are offering and what skills are needed?
    Perhaps they should first ask people where they think the biggest employment growth in Australia has occurred in the last decade. If they can’t answer this, there probably isn’t much point in asking other questions.


  2. The most interesting question in the survey asked about credentialism. 61% agreed that employers hire university graduates for jobs that could be done as well or better by people without university degrees.

    Yet question B1 found that nearly 80% of respondents thought that there were many other ways to succeed apart from going to uni.


  3. Probably repeating myself, and have forgotten your answer, but when you say “low SES attendance rates increased between 1996 and 2001” does the data say who was in which course?

    Because once upon a time to become a librarian you did a degree, and then a 1 year diploma in librarianship, later you could do a degree in librarianship, and now you can do a university degree to become a library technician. So perhaps there are two tiers of university education and the low SES students are in the crummy universities doing vocational courses that lead to low-paying jobs. But paying more than when those jobs only needed a TAFE diploma. How many low SES students went straight from school to doing medicine and law?


  4. Russell – The census only asks about field of study for completed courses, but the generally poor school results of low SES students means that relatively few do medicine and law, I think there was some data in this report.


  5. So this is the problem I have with nearly all bits of economic data – contextless and meaningless: it appears from the quoted figures that more low SES students are going to university. Sounds good.

    But what does that mean if the university courses they are doing are not the courses that universities used to teach, they don’t lead to the better paying jobs, and are more expensive than the necessary vocational qualifications used to be?

    Going to university used to mean that you were likely to step up a rung or two, socio-economically, but now you can’t draw that conclusion. Universities used to educate students just for the professions, but now run courses that qualify graduates for some very ordinary occupations.


  6. Russell — I think people are far too cynical about this crummy universities and crummy degrees business. It’s no doubt that degrees have got worse, but this is across the spectrum and across universities — including the rich ones. For example, the standard of the degree at my rather average university is not dissimilar to essentially the same degree across town at Melbourne (in fact, it’s better if you choose the right options, which are only available where I work — Melbourne constantly takes many of our top students from 4th year into their postgraduate courses). We also know there are universities where students are worse (we try not to take them for 4th year because they create too many problems), but this is not well correlated with the quality of the university — it’s quite specific to particular degrees and particular departments. Occasionally the university is responsible and not the department, but this is generally when they get into serious money troubles and the standard of everything goes to the dogs (La Trobe, once a pretty good university, is a good example where this is happening).

    Here are three observations people need to think about before saying this:
    1) It is possible to get a decent TER and not be able to either write a decent letter or have any level of numeracy. As an anecdotal example, yesterday I had to help a third year turn things into percentages (and our Enter scores around 78). Many decent jobs require these types of minimal skills these days.
    2) Many employers want smart people, and not necessarily smart people somehow perfectly trained for a particular vocational position.
    3) If you don’t believe (2), which many people don’t, then you should check out graduate starting salaries on graduatecareers.com.au. What is surprising about the starting salaries is that apart from dentistry, the starting salaries are amazingly homogenous — so all of these courses people complain about are producing people that employers want.
    4) If you still don’t believe (2), think of what you did at university, and what you did for the next decade of your working life.


  7. Conrad – you’re probably right, I should have just said ‘crummy courses’ rather than crummy universities. But my point was that it’s no good producing figures that show more low SES students graduating from uni, with the implication that this is another triumph of Australian egalitarianism, when it may not be the case.


  8. Russell – I never claimed any triumph of egalitarianism; clearly low SES is strongly negatively correlated with uni attendance. My claim is just that the trend is not in the direction people assume.

    But I think we could also argue that many people are not really making empirical claims about changes over time when answering questions like this (about which they are likely to know little or nothing), but instead saying that poor students are too unlikely to go to university.


  9. “My claim is just that the trend is not in the direction people assume. ”

    and my point is that no meaningful trend is evident: to say that more low SES students attend university compared to sometime previously, implies that a university is what it was, but it ain’t necessarily so. Universities have become a bit like haute couture labels that also now produce much cheaper ready-to-wear lines. Just because everybody can wear the label now doesn’t mean everybody is getting the good stuff.


  10. Russell – I think there was a big and meaningful trend up to the early 2000s. It probably was disproportionately into the lower-paying professions, but that is still important social mobility.


  11. Russell:”Universities have become a bit like haute couture labels that also now produce much cheaper ready-to-wear lines”
    Andrew:”It probably was disproportionately into the lower-paying professions”

    If this is true and mainly affecting low SES students, then it is at least partly self-afflicted, since, apart from a few a select courses, there is little relationship between ENTER scores and the type of degree you want (the biggest variance is between universities). In addition, even if you get a really low ENTER score, you can often go to country or outer suburban campuses who let essentially anyone in (and often transfer back after a year if you really want). Given this, I don’t see the problem being caused by the university system.


  12. We know very little about the long-term consequences of which university students attend. The only data source – the Graduate Destination Survey – is only for newly completed students and does not control for initial entry requirements.


  13. “…into the lower-paying professions, but that is still important social mobility.”

    Is it? If you forego income while studying, and have substantial fees to pay, and end up in a low-paying ‘profession’ how much social mobility have you bought? Social mobility has as much to do with money as anything else and if you graduate from a university with some qualification to be a teacher’s assistant, or laboratory technician etc, you’re not going to be much better off. It might be better to find a job and then look for development opportunities, or gain experience, within that organisation, and move on from there.

    Any figures that refer to “university graduates” as if an engineer is the same as a lab assistant, are worthless.


  14. Russell,

    you are being too pessimistic. The idea that there are really a whole lot of bad courses around is basically disproved by the graduate outcomes surveys. Even those degrees people love to smear, like social science, have reasonable outcomes — what percentage of degrees do you think people are doing that don’t benefit them? This idea that the only decent degrees out there are things like engineering is incorrect (much like the idea that all the new job growth is in trades). It’s basically based on ignorance. If you are interested, the statistics are written in one of the newsletters from this site:


    The other thing you need to consider is that given everything is moving towards the US model, it means that the highly prestigious courses (like medicine) will only be open to people with a degree (any degree — you just need to do the GAMSAT test), which solves the high-school equity problem.


  15. Conrad – I think Russell has a point, though probably not precisely the one he thinks he has. If low SES background persons are over-represented among those in non-graduate jobs they are getting poor returns on their education – though this is an argument against going to university at all, rather than against lower fees. I also found that private school graduates earn more than government school graduates.


  16. I should stop while I’m ahead, but when Conrad says “there is little relationship between ENTER scores and the type of degree you want” and “highly prestigious courses (like medicine) will only be open to people with a degree (any degree — you just need to do the GAMSAT test), which solves the high-school equity problem” …. I’m wondering how you would get into engineering, say, if you didn’t have the appropriate mathematics.

    I believe that more and more state schools in low-SES areas are offering fewer of these “difficult’ subjects and replacing them with easier options (because there aren’t enough kids opting for the harder, university pre-requisite subjects). Choosing from the limited range of subjects available to you, you might do very well, but they may not be the subjects that get you into engineering, medicine, architecture ….


  17. Well, i’m a second year science/econ student at a qld uni, in my physiology class we’re investigating blood glucose levels so i decided to add “state” or “private” school to the data set, to see whether blood glucose levels are different in each group (under the assumption that for young people <21 their SES is predicated on parental income and thus the school to which they attended… though under 21 was relatively arbitrary)…

    i was completely surprised to find that just a little over 20% of students went to a state school (there were 135 students overall). I can’t put it down to bias, since every person in the groups that were asked this specific question in the questionnaire answered (there were some prac groups before i added the state-or-private question).

    what do you reckon (anecdotally)? is this consistent? or is it just peculiar to science perhaps?


  18. Josh – I’m not sure what % of people attend Qld private schools in Year 12, but that looks to be about one-third of the state school share we would expect if the two groups went to university at the same rate.


  19. Russell,

    most universities are willing to bend over backwards (and forwards again), to let anyone in these days into courses like engineering (there simply arn’t enough applicants at many places). Many have mathematics bridging courses (like where I work), for people that didn’t do those subjects. In addition, the decline of maths and science isn’t a public/private thing — it’s across the system, and no doubt will be become worse if overall school reports are used (why have kids that might not do well bring your average down when they can do easier subjects?).
    As for medicine — you should be able to learn all the stuff you need for the GAMSAT yourself after getting your degree (basically, year 12 physics, 1st year chemistry and biology — textbooks at this level cover everything you need, and are generally excellent — they have an example test on their site if you are interested in seeing the level of difficulty of it). That’s one of the good things about graduate entry courses — it basically removes the high school component to get in (one of the really inequitable parts of the system).


  20. This may have happened before, but it is the first time I have seen it.


    If Universities lose the exclusive right to offer degrees I think it is all over for the current system. I would suggest that research ratings are really of little interest to students, yet research and not education seems to be the focus, take as an example recent submissions for changes in funding and the metrics used to measure the “top” universities.


  21. Charles – Non-universities have awarded degrees for many decades, if not since the 19th century. There are over 100 non-university degree providers in Australia. Cengage is interesting because it is a global company, but mostly the non-university providers are small local operations, The non-universities have their courses accredited by state government agencies and where relevant other external accreditation authorities. With a couple of minor exceptions they receive no tuition subsidies, so they are more expensive than public universities, but the FEE-HELP loan scheme has made them more affordable.


  22. Conrad – while ” the decline of maths and science isn’t a public/private thing” I’ll bet there’s a high-SES/ low-SES aspect to the thing. It would be hard to find a high fee paying private school which didn’t offer the full range of university entrance subjects. Likewise the state schools in the richest suburbs. I think it’s a differnet picture in the poorer schools/suburbs.

    And though students from limited schools may be able to take courses to make up for their limited schooling, it’s still a significant hurdle in their way to getting into the more lucrative professions.


  23. The decline of maths and science teaching most certainly is a public/ private thing. I have just graduated as a maths teacher. Everyone in my course who could be termed an even vaguely competent mathematician now works in a private school.


  24. Andrew I went looking, I can find heaps of diplomas and certificates but no degrees, could you point me to a resource that shows me whats available.



  25. Charles – I have a spreadsheet detailing who provides what on my work computer, which I cannot access from the computer I am on. But you are right that some on the list would offer only diplomas. There is no national list; I collated mine from the various state registers, eg eg this one from NSW. They list 103 bachelor courses outside the university sector in NSW.


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  27. Is that a clever joke invig?

    Short selling is just betting that the price of a stock is going to go down. It is not fundamentally different to buying a stock and holding it (hoping it is going to go up). Or buying a future (because you think the price will actually be higher than given).


  28. No its not.

    I have serious doubts about the workability of short selling. Seems to me it turns the stock market into a race track, and the bookies are hedge fund managers.

    So, all those with inside information gain great benefit, which undermines the entire purpose of the stock market (as a level playing field). Better to limit the transactions that can be done. That way there is one less (in fact half) the capacity for abuse to occur. You only buy companies that you think are doing well. Those that are not doing so well; it is up to the current shareholders to fix the problem.

    This is why the stock market was set up. People who don’t own stock should play no part in the running of the company. To allow this invites betrayal by those currently inside the tent (or according to my model, strengthen external obligations)


  29. Surely if you think the price is going to go and you are shorting you you don’t own the stock. You say that you will deliver stock to someone at particular time/price. If the market price is lower at that time then you pocket at the difference.


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