Home > Economic policy > Education is an investment, not a filter

Education is an investment, not a filter

January 28th, 2016

There’s been a fair bit of fuss about reports that it’s now much easier to get into a university course than it used to be. This is the unsurprising result of decades of public policy aimed in this direction (with some brief reversals, most notably when David Kemp was minister). This piece by Leith van Onselen is fairly representative

Thanks to the former Labor Government’s uncapping of university places in 2012, allowing universities to recruit as many students as they can fit, actual tertiary entrance scores have plummeted, meaning every man and his dog can now get a degree, devaluing their worth in the process.

Implicit in this statement is the “screening” theory of education, that the point of getting a university degree (or finishing high school for that matter) is to show that you are smarter than the people who didn’t. The idea that doing a degree might equip you with useful specific knowledge, or with general skills in reasoning, writing and so on, doesn’t get mentioned.

Assuming, as is fair in this context, that the “worth” of a degree is being conceived in monetary terms, the claim that degrees have been “devalued” depends on the future earnings of the students now being admitted. We can’t know this (neither can van Onselen). However, the long-term evidence is clear: in Australia, as everywhere else in the world, the wage premium for graduates has remained large enough to make going to university a very good decision, even as the proportion of young people undertaking university education has risen from a tiny minority in the mid-20th century to around 40 per cent today.

One interpretation of this is that, over the past century or more, the entire world has been engaged in more and more elaborate screening for no good reason. A more plausible explanation is that technological change has eliminated the kinds of jobs that used to employ kids with a Year 10 education (the median level of achievement when I was young), and replaced them with jobs that need the skills (specific and general) of a university graduate.

There’s every reason to think that these trends will continue in the future, so we are going to need more education not less. In my view, just about everyone should undertake post-secondary education either at university or TAFE.

In this context, I shoud note that van Onselen is spot-on about the disaster area that is for-profit education, particularly in the vocational sector. As I’ve said before, the for-profit providers should either be shut down or turned into contract providers for the TAFE system.

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  1. bjb
    January 28th, 2016 at 15:40 | #1

    The whole notion that just because it’s easier to get into a university implies there is a dumbing down is completely bogus.

    IMO, everybody who wants to go to uni should be able to. Technology has taken a lot of the grunt work out of teaching, and with video lectures etc many more students can be taught.

    I’ve got a maths degree, and at the end of the day, if you can’t solve differential equations, complex variables, yada, yada, you don’t get a degree. So what if thousands sign up for a degree – you either master the material or you don’t get the degree.

    I think this notion of “dumbing down” is really just dog whistle stuff by the wealthy, who’ve paid tens (and maybe hundreds) of thousands of dollars sending little Jane and Johnny to a private school, only for them to arrive at uni and be surrounded by what they consider riff raff.

  2. Ikonoclast
    January 28th, 2016 at 15:53 | #2

    By all means, we should educate all persons to the highest degree possible limited only by their own interests, motivations and abilities. This should have both social and economic benefits. However, we cannot expect many supply-side economic effects from having an over-educated population (economically speaking) who are then underutilised by an economy running under capacity. Employment will be increased in the education sector but higher rates of education alone will do little else for the rest of the economy.

    The real question is how do we employ all our well-educated people and indeed those with less education? Full employment is the real issue in the current system. Nobody talks about full employment any more. I guess it’s a policy concept and goal too hard for the current economic system to grasp or implement. This is clear evidence of a failed system. It has failed to deal with unemployment for about 40 years. How long do we have to wait for real progress? This system does not have any answers.

  3. Peter T
    January 28th, 2016 at 16:17 | #3

    Some part of the growth in the proportion of university educated is the transfer to university of skills previously learned in other ways. A journalist cadetship was, for instance, the equivalent of a degree in journalism. Ditto many white collar trade skills. And the previous generation were not necessarily less educated – many trade apprenticeships were (and are) as hard to earn as university degrees.

  4. dedalus
    January 28th, 2016 at 16:29 | #4

    The purpose of education being to prepare people for employment in a competitive marketplace may have some logic in today’s world, but at its heart is a big flaw. And that is the core idea that employment, per se, has merit or is in fact even necessary.

    Imagine a world in which the majority of work is performed by automated systems, of all types, both large and miniature. Robots built by other robots. An almost fully automated world, the logical extension, if you think about it, of the industrial revolution. What then the need for labour? Productivity would be at a greater level than we can now imagine, and assuming an answer to the population explosion problem and limits of growth problem and global warming problem and wars between nations problem and religion and nationalist fanaticism problem (ie assuming some realised utopia), what then for the utilisation of people’s time?

    That is the real core issue. How as individuals we employ our time in a meaningful way. In this imagined but nonetheless possible future, we may live very long lives, so the purpose of education would then be more like “preparing people to use their free time” – since most of this time would indeed be “free”.

    This is to restate Wilde’s dictum: “work is the curse of the drinking class.”

  5. Andrew Norton
    January 28th, 2016 at 17:10 | #5

    Regrettably there was a small and temporary drop in domestic enrolments in one of the years that Kemp was minister, due in part to the flow-through of 1996 Budget decisions, but over his term in office (1997-2001) there was a 5% increase in domestic full-time equivalent places. I was his higher education adviser 1997-1999.

    Kemp was however the first minister to propose removing limits on student numbers. This was rejected by Cabinet in 1999 after the submission had been leaked to the ALP. Julia Gillard finally implemented the policy in 2012. Kemp didn’t think numbers should be kept down; that they were was a product of fiscal and political circumstance.

    I agree with the broad argument in the rest of the post.

  6. Anthony
    January 28th, 2016 at 18:41 | #6


    In fairness there is the saying “P’s get degrees”. A student only has to master half of their course to get their degree. In fact Universities can hand out honorary degrees to anyone they want to. Perhaps increasing the pass scores (65% maybe?) may increase confidence in the quality of degrees. The downside is that this will probably penalise time-poor low SES students (e.g. single mums who have to work with little time to study).

    For the sciences I have long suggested many students would be better off doing Certificates and Diplomas for practical lab skills. Afterwards, they could upgrade to a degree by studying more theory.

  7. conrad
    January 28th, 2016 at 18:43 | #7

    I agree about the point of education — especially given the average number of jobs people have across a career these days. That being said, dumbing down does occur from letting in students with low TERs — this is because standards are largely endogenously driven, and so the difficulty of courses simply gets set close to the lowest common denominator (which is the only ethical thing to do — most students in a course that meet the requirements to get in should be able to get through unless otherwise stated). This is enforced at many universities (like mine) where you are punished by management if you fail too many students (15%+) and punished again when your teaching ratings are poor due to the course being too “hard”. The main thing saving the GO8 is that the correlation between TERs and university performance is not thrilling within some bands (70-90), but for the rest of us that get students with low TERs the results is obvious.

  8. Collin Street
    January 28th, 2016 at 19:30 | #8

    The biggest supporters of the status quo are the talentless scions of the aristocracy.

  9. bjb
    January 28th, 2016 at 20:17 | #9

    conrad :
    This is enforced at many universities (like mine) where you are punished by management if you fail too many students (15%+) and punished again when your teaching ratings are poor due to the course being too “hard”.

    I admit it’s been a very long time since I was an undergraduate, but surely if people are upset about lowering standards, then from what you’ve said, it’s all in the universities court – why do you get punished for maintaining a standard ?

    I know when I was doing my degree the physics courses were notorious for their failure rate (which may explain why many universities have dropped physics).

  10. conrad
    January 28th, 2016 at 20:49 | #10

    I don’t know any university management that is upset about lowering standards and the government isn’t either — both are far more concerned about attrition rates and keeping them as low as possible (and together they have almost all the power now — the idea of pesky academics interfering with things is long gone). You sound like you did your degree in the 80s (or before), and the way things run is nothing at all like now, at least for Aus unis.

  11. January 28th, 2016 at 21:07 | #11

    The only thing I’d add is that universities should not enrol a student into a course when it is obvious the student can’t pass the course. This is certainly happening at the moment.

    In a unit in which I’m involved the least qualified students we allow to do the unit still have a roughly 50% chance of passing – which I think is pretty fair.

  12. Ernestine Gross
    January 28th, 2016 at 22:04 | #12

    Leith van Onselen concludes his article with a question I believe goes to the crux of the problem with the ‘demand-driven’ and profit maximising education system:

    ” Is it [university education] a public good used to boost the nation’s productivity and prosperity, or is it merely another commodity to be sold for short-term profit?” (Term in square brackets added to provide the context). Source: Article referenced in JQ’s post.

    Peter T makes a point I tend to agree with. Alternatively put, it is useful to distinguish between ‘education’ and ‘credentialism’.

    Conrad, I should think a lot of academics across many if not all universities would agree with you.

  13. Ikonoclast
    January 29th, 2016 at 07:07 | #13

    Dedalus questions “the core idea that employment, per se, has merit or is in fact even necessary.” In its wider meaning “employment” is “the utilization of something”. Considered in this sense, we have to employ our bodies and minds at something or they will rapidly degenerate.

    If we take the narrower definition of employment, “the state of having paid work” we will find this is also necessary under the current economic system. Without an independent source of capitalist or rentier income, a person will need a source of income from employment, self-employment or social welfare.

    The advent of a fully automated world, if it occurs in the way dedalus envisages, will require a different system for allocating the output of production for consumption. If paid work does not provide the wealth condition for consumption for most people, then what will? The world dedalus envisages cannot occur under capitalism.

    It is not credible in my estimation that all work would be done by automation. On the other hand, it is quite credible that 50% of work currently not automated could be automated in the long term. In that case, we have to face the same question. If paid work does not provide the wealth condition for consumption for most people, then what will?

  14. Paul Kniest
    January 29th, 2016 at 08:25 | #14

    Unfortunately the policy debate around tertiary education has descended in a discussion about how corporations (with the title university in their names) can most efficiently service their clients (once referred to as students) demands. The consequences of moving to this market oriented view of tertiary education provision can be seen Vocational Education and Training (VET) and what spectacular failure that has turned out to be. Education is far too important to be left to the market. We must view education as an investment in our future not only individually through higher earnings but also an investment in and for the public good.

  15. dedalus
    January 29th, 2016 at 08:33 | #15

    It goes without saying that vastly increased automation of production, including services, would result in a reduced demand for labour, including skilled labour as we know it. Otherwise the production wouldn’t be full automated. The question of which political system would oversee such a world – or rather the question of who or which body would exercise ultimate control (democratic, oligarchic, etc) is a seperate one.

    My simple point is that increased “leisure”, or “free time”, would likely be the result of future extreme automation, barring the problems I raised (limits of growth etc).

    This is the nub of my assertion that there is no inherent nobility in work per se. Consider the worker (Chaplin) tightening bolts on the assembly line in Modern Times. Work. Consider the director (Chaplin) directing Modern Times. Creative utilisation of time.

    Imagine someone, say an artist, who would like to devote his/her life to “creative utilisation of time”. This would be “work” by one definition, but the spending of “free time” in another – providing, and this is crucial, that the world could offer this individual the free time that would be necessary to utilise it. In today’s world, that free time is only available to such an individual at the expense of penury (aka the dole). In an ideal world, it would be available without cost, via the twin miracles of advanced automated systems and equitable distribution of resources.

    A utopia, obviously, and it probably will never happen.

  16. Ootz
    January 29th, 2016 at 09:32 | #16

    Paul, while the failure of market oriented Vocational Education and Training (VET) has recently been acknowledged almost universally, it would appear the focus in the main is on the market failure of the corporations and the regulators. I hardly hear of industry and employer groups complaining about the suitability of the ‘products’ of these market orientated institutions. Nor is voice given to the ‘products’ which have had difficulties in making a return on their investment nor the frustration of being stuck on an eternal treadwheel of up/re skilling ‘programs’ just to stay in the game.

    Are we witnessing the McDonaldization of education and training … with Walmarts of Higher Education?

  17. Ikonoclast
    January 29th, 2016 at 09:48 | #17


    In that case, it will require socialism. That is what I was trying to suggest to you. Socialism is the only possible way to organise such a society with justice and equity for all. A proportion of production (maybe a large proportion as you envisage) will be separated from the necessity of labour, physical or intellectual. We can even imagine programs which write programs so even artificial intelligence could construct and maintain ever-improved versions of itself.

    With production automated and thus separated from labour, the major income divide of income from capital and income from labour must be transcended. If it is not, those with no labour will have no income. The most equitable and logical way to do this will be socialism (rather than welfarism). With nobody working (reasoning from the absolute case), what rationale is there that a few capitalists should own everything and have complete control of the distribution from automated production while the rest own nothing? The only equitable and logical solution would be socialism. Nobody works, therefore nobody has a right to a special or first call on production. The only fair distribution would be an equal one to all, varied only by actual need. A paraplegic will need more mobility help than an able-bodied person for example.

    This thought experiment pretty much proves the final necessity and irrefutable moral argument for socialism.

  18. Jim Rose
    January 29th, 2016 at 11:37 | #18

    I agree with John but reading Brian Caplan’s blogs on his forthcoming book s case against education is very bracing in terms of the degree of that belief.

    The best part of those blogs are his debates with others and the way in which several top economists respond to his argument which often involves a considerable retreat from the education is investment position.

  19. Duncan Earley
    January 29th, 2016 at 12:22 | #19

    I agree with Jim Rose that Bryan Caplans work on this has really highlighted that uni is mostly signalling/filtering. I think what JQ is missing in his post is what has happened to the completion rate of degrees as that’s what matters in the end… not getting in. I suspect its down a fair bit.

    Also I suspect that “hard” degrees like engineering, comp sci, maths, medicine etc have not had enrollment rates increase anywhere near as much as the “easy” degrees.

  20. dedalus
    January 29th, 2016 at 13:01 | #20

    We’re on the same page here. Or maybe book. Though, as always, there’s a big fly in the ointment. The socialist ointment.

    It’s the human condition, or more precisely the superstitious proclivities and arrant greed of people. Take your various experiments in socialism. The small communes setting up in arcadia that inevitably break up due to rising property values or the emergence of the egocentric guru pissing his followers off. The big experiments like soviet communism, once again torpedoed by the mad guru (Stalin). The current small L facade run by the pompous one from point piper. Some sort of symmetry there: socialist gurus and capitalist oligarchs. Well obviously these smooth talking guru types are god surrogates, tricking the people into following them. Mostly over cliffs. And like all good god figures they brook no opposition. Ides of March etc. Kinife in the back or the velvet glove. Power moves upwards in a pyramid, as sure as water trickles down.

    A cynic would say that inside us all is a guru or oligarch wanting to get out. (OK, not all – just exaggerating to make a point.) The working class can kiss my arse. A more rational or sanguine view would be that in every political system is some utopian vision, destined to be corrupted and betrayed. Political systems are so interesting in theory. But you can’t trust them. They’re defeated by short-termism. The three score and ten years term of our natural life. No time to get too theoretical in such a short time span. Time too precious. Takes time to win the next election. Takes time to browse the mall. Sad but partly true. I’m a very optimistic person.


  21. Julie Thomas
    January 29th, 2016 at 14:51 | #21


    You are so wrong about the human condition. We are only greedy when we are raised in an environment that advocates greed and the idea that other people are there to be exploited.

    Have you actually lived in a commune?

    My own experience is that it is not egocentric guru’s that are the problem or rising property values.

    It is not difficult to control the ‘gurus’. Alpha males, patriarchs, sociopaths and psychopaths who derail decent societies with their selfish and greedy behaviour can be managed without violence if the majority of community members share the same values and sanctions on anti-social behaviour.

    How do you reckon the Amish keep their guru’s and wannabe oligarch’s in check?

  22. GrueBleen
    January 29th, 2016 at 15:39 | #22

    Just a personal reminiscence, please ignore if you aren’t into that sort of thing.

    A Brief History of Australian Education (in Victoria, anyway).

    My father (b 1905) had two years of secondary education at a state Central School. That was it in those days: if you weren’t from a more or less well to do family (and quite likely went to a private school) or you weren’t smart enough to win one of the very few scholarships, you were out of education by age 14 (+/- 1) and into the workforce. Of the few ‘public school’ kids who made it, many went on to Melbourne High (which is why it starts at year 9, not year 7).

    So that was just terrific ‘filtering’ – 85% or more of all kids (and more like 95% of all girls) had been filtered out and so could not degrade our wonderful ‘secondary and tertiary education’.

    By the time I (born 1943) got to secondary school, Central Schools were being wound down and it was the age of the ‘High’ school. Or maybe a Tech school (eg Brighton Tech, Footscray Tech, RMIT) so you could become a tradie. I went to Brighton High School in its first year (2/3 of which was spent attending half time – in the afternoon – sharing buildings with McKinnon).

    By the time I got to Matric in 1960, only 37 kids out of the original 260 or so were still there. Yeah, a few had moved to other locations, but we also got an input of about 25 or so when Gardenvale Central was closed down. Mind, of that 37, nearly half were girls. And of that 37 about half passed Matric, so out of an original 260 odd +25, only 19 achieved Uni entrance qualification. That’s pretty damn good filtering too, don’t you agree ? But then, that was the specified purpose of Matric (year 12) as well as having a Leaving level (year 11) – Matric was the Uni entrance filter year.

    Of those who passed Matric, nearly half were girls most of whom went on to Melbourne Uni and became doctors (well, one did) and lawyers (several) and teachers (a couple) and a librarian. And most of us who did a little better than a pass, got a Commonwealth Scholarship (thank you Benedict Chifley and Robert Gordon Menzies).

    But then in those days we still had Tech schools, we had CAEs (for those not quite good enough for uni but good enough for some kind of tertiary education) and we had a variety of upper and lower unis for the serious tertiary students and also the ‘vocational’ ones. And TAFEs, of course, which is what most of the Tech schools became after 1974.

    Well, the TAFEs are under-funded and under attack, the CAEs are all gone – converted into so-called Universities (eg Swinburne which as part Tech, part CAE) and that’s where we’re at. Sour our ‘one shape fits all’ tertiary education, ie “universities” now has to accommodate virtually the entire ‘higher education’ demand. Is it any wonder that it isn’t working ?

  23. Donald Oats
    January 29th, 2016 at 15:47 | #23

    There are things that have social value, but are rather difficult to assign a numerical score, in the sense that the (thing having) value is multi-dimensional with many ramifications. Capitalism is relentless in its attempts to monetise any and every damn thing. Education is now a commodity that is bought and sold, expressed as a price in a market full of prices.

    Every competitive market has a range of strategies available to the makers/sellers of stuff: high volume trade with thin margin on a cheap and barely acceptable product, through to top-of-the-line high quality product with fat margin and lower volume of trade, and everything in between. Charlatans pop up and try to exploit weaknesses in the strategies that would-be consumers use for discovering the most suitable product for their requirements; the more expensive the discovery process, the bigger the ignorance gaps that the charlatans can exploit.

    Higher education (i.e. degrees awarded) is a product that possesses high ignorance gaps in the discovery process: how do you determine that a degree, awarded some years after applying to study it at university X, is worth the cost to you in time and money? In partial answer to that question, those with considerable personal wealth can use the price of the degree as a proxy for the quality of the product: the highly expensive degrees are, by way of the cost, imbued with a glow of quality. In effect, the price paid for the degree is a signal to would-be employers that the purchaser of said degree has the right kind of connections; in the moneyed world, connections matter, and these are factored into the price itself, in a glorious frenzy of free market-ee-ism.

    Higher education is a complex market place now, as many of the costs of obtaining it are deferred costs, including the not insubstantial HECS fees. For most purchasers, they use short-cuts in their discovery and evaluation process, exposing themselves to the ignorance gap and its consequences.

    We now pay vice chancellors an extraordinary amount of money, and yet they do much the same role as before the full roar of the market place was heard. They were well remunerated then, but now it’s stratospheric. How any of this makes higher education “better” is beyond me.

    On an entirely different trajectory, I had a look at a little shop selling jewellery today: towards the rear of the shop, there were several jewellers and silver-smiths creating new pieces of jewellery by hand. The value of jewellery is quite debatable, quite vague; and yet, it is ubiquitous in society. There is something personally rewarding in seeing artisans indulging a creative pursuit, such as making jewellery, even if there is little practical value of the end-product. Of course, jewellery is often used as a signal to others, the “right” others, and that is a portion of its market value. And that brings me back to thoughts on the current higher education system…

  24. Mayson
    January 29th, 2016 at 17:36 | #24

    When seeing the “dumbing down” theory, I am reminded of some anecdata from Peter Drucker [hbhn]. In 194?, most of the undergraduates at Columbia were returned veterans of WWII, supported by the GI bill. Almost all of them were from backgrounds which would previously have ensured that they would have negligible chance of attending university. None of them were on academic probation.

    Also of this “What a PhD Really Means in the US National Security Community” https://news.vice.com/article/doctors-of-doom-what-a-phd-really-means-in-the-us-national-security-community-1

  25. dedalus
    January 29th, 2016 at 17:44 | #25

    @julie Thomas

    Fair enough. Perhaps I was being a bit over the top to make my argument.

    However, as you say, greed comes to us “.. when we are raised in an environment that advocates greed and the idea that other people are there to be exploited.”

    That is true. But, unfortunately, such an environment is widespread in the world. Exploitation is a natural thing, a Darwinian thing. Darwin would say that all living things exploit their environment, and unless kept in check by some natural balance, they can overtake and crowd out other species. This is happening all the time with species extinction and the exploitation of our resources. But yes, the majority of people do resist the worst excesses of exploitation, and this is due, I think, to the beneficial influences of civilisation.

  26. Sam
    January 30th, 2016 at 13:51 | #26

    The approach to university management you describe is entirely consistent with education as an investment and suggests that management believes their staff should be good at teaching people. They can take a broader group of people and still be able to teach that group to pass the course. If students find the course too hard, then maybe it says something about the capability of the staff. If only high calibre students can pass, then the value of university reduces to being a filter, which the students have already been passed through once – they all have an ENTER score.

    The previously high ENTER scores for many courses simply reflected their popularity, not a conscious decision to exclude students based on their capability. With less restrictive entry, universities will need to improve the education they provide to ensure students continue to be able to pass.

  27. Ikonoclast
    January 30th, 2016 at 14:27 | #27

    Surely, there is at least one valid way in which University should be a filter? It must filter out those not innately intelligent enough to gain competence in a discipline. For example, we do not want incompetent engineers who cannot understand enough physics and maths to design and maintain safe, efficient and effective real engineering constructions be they bridges, power grids or other complex systems.

    I am reasonably intelligent (I hope) but I am sure a good university system and consequent career advancement system would have soon filtered me out if my dearest career goal had been to be an advanced theoretical physicist in fields like particle physics, quantum physics or cosmology. It is highly unlikely that I have the innate and right kind(s) of intelligence for that. There are real limits besides educational assistance and personal motivation.

  28. Ikonoclast
    January 30th, 2016 at 14:48 | #28


    That doctors of doom article is very thought provoking. The USA is suffering an educational, cultural and intellectual malaise and decline of the most profound kind. The correct strategy for China is to sit back and wait, geostrategically speaking, while developing economically and educationally. They need not lift an offensive finger against the USA. It is self-destructing.

    Note, I do not look forward to a world dominated by China. It will be worse for us. However, it won’t happen in my lifetime, these are long range trends and there is not a thing Australia (a puny nation in the scheme of things) can do about it.

  29. Ikonoclast
    January 30th, 2016 at 20:59 | #29

    A challenging question is this. How many types of university degrees, on their own, are useless for getting employment? From personal observation I can name one. Maybe others can name some too. Psychology degrees on their own appear to be completely useless for getting employment in Australia, even four year degrees with honours.

    The UQ site says;

    “Why study the Bachelor of Psychological Science?

    This program prepares students for careers in psychology and for postgraduate professional or research training.”

    However, a Bachelor of Psychological Science alone does not prepare a person for any career. The words “and for” above should be replaced with the words “after further”. Only after further study and supervised clinical training (the latter often done as an unpaid intern i.e. a slave) can a Bachelor of Psychological Science prepare you for any career.

    It raises the question. Is this degree sold under false pretences? Tertiary education in general is sold to young people as a career investment. What is it called when something you have been inveigled to buy as a complete product turns out to be completely useless unless you buy another expensive item to go with it? Whatever the term is that’s the term for a Bachelor of Psychological Science.

    The whole system is starting to stink to high heaven.

  30. davidp
    January 30th, 2016 at 21:45 | #30

    My experience (outside of a Group of 8) is that significant differences (+10% points) in ENTER scores are associated with significant differences with capabilities to tackle more challenging material. The ENTER scores were not just to ration entry. For example, one course had a drop in ENTER of about 20 percentage points and now has specific subjects in numeracy and writing for first year students who fail a diagnostic test (I guess upon entry). The best accounting lecturer can’t teach accounting to students who arrive with insufficient maths. While uni’s could teach remedial maths etc., there would probably be a greater return on improving training at the primary and high school level (where they didn’t pick up these skills). This may not even be due to ability (and saw students who thrived with the right support) but due to other factors affecting their ability to study even pre-uni – so it may be a matter of investing earlier in this sort of support too.

  31. Bloix
    January 31st, 2016 at 01:00 | #31

    “the wage premium for graduates has remained large enough to make going to university a very good decision,”

    If employers universally demand that prospective employees have a credential costing 100,000 and four years to obtain, instead of hiring people and training them at negligible cost (because they are working while learning), then yes, going to university is a very good decision for an individual. That doesn’t mean that rsubsidizing degrees, so that employers can require them at no cost to themselves, makes sense as a social decision.

    I’m an over-educated person who has spent many years working with professionals in the London insurance market, which historically has not demanded higher education degrees. These are people who started out making the tea. As they showed promise, they learned on the job, took evening courses and obtain professional certificates, and became highly skilled in their chosen field.

    I simply don’t believe that for most business professionals, a three-or-four year university degree is a prerequisite. I believe that it’s a very expensive screening tool. I believe that before academics make such sweeping statements about the value of higher education, it would be reasonable for them to compare professional environments that don’t demand degrees, like the London insurance market, with those that do.

    Some argue that the university experience broadens and deepens the intellectual life of the students. That might be so but it’s got nothing to do with wage premiums. And I doubt that as a matter of fact it is so. I think it teaches cynicism and bad work habits. See, e.g., My Freshman Year, by “Rebekah Nathan” (Cathy Small).

  32. conrad
    January 31st, 2016 at 09:14 | #32

    Data? I’ve supervised at least 30 4th Year psychology students and all have quite reasonable jobs as far as I’m aware. Some earn more than me as a Level D academic (and good luck to them), although they are outliers.

  33. conrad
    January 31st, 2016 at 09:17 | #33
  34. Ikonoclast
    January 31st, 2016 at 10:00 | #34


    I have a number of questions. I hope you can answer and will feel willing to answer. I admit in advance that the 5th question is somewhat intellectually “combative” but your data claim is not one you would accept from your own supervised students. Admittedly, you wrote a quick blog reply not a paper.

    Note, it is not individuals I am attacking here, it is the system. In turn, it is not the academic quality of the University system I am attacking. In fact, I think the quality of our Sandstone Unis is still good. The current political economy (namely late stage capitalism) is my target. It is failing to provide jobs for our young people. There is a lamentable disconnect between the progressive privatisation of education, towards the “pay privately for education” model, and the failure of the overall economy to provide jobs. It amounts to a neocon swindle, along with the many other swindles they are perpetrating against the ordinary majority of people.

    1. Did graduates find jobs with only a 4th year psychology degree or did they need to do further study and training before getting Psychologist accreditation and then jobs?

    2. If jobs were obtained with only a 4th year psychology degree, was the degree as a presented credential in any way necessary or of assistance in getting the job ?

    3. Are you saying of the 30 x 4th year students you supervised that this is indeed the full total of all such students you supervised and that 100% got jobs?

    4. What period were these 30 supervised over (3 years, 5 years)? How long on average did it take them to get jobs?

    5. Finally, how good is your data since (a) the sample is too small to be statistically significant and (b) you qualify it with “so far as I am aware”?

    Of importance here is that graduate employment outcomes have worsened rapidly in the last few years in Australia and Psychology degrees are among the worst performing degrees for gaining employment. I refer to the Graduate Destination Survey(s) conducted by Graduate Careers Australia.

  35. conrad
    January 31st, 2016 at 10:21 | #35

    (1) Some did masters of things later (clinical, education, counselling…) and you can’t get in without 4th year. Some come from our psychophys program (where they do a psych major) and work in the public health system where you don’t need this (this is a very successful program for employment — we have some data from students from decades ago, and it’s fine). This is why students should choose their majors well — it makes a massive difference.
    (2) Yes
    (3) I don’t know if 100% got jobs as I don’t know what 100% did. But most 4th years we have had get decent jobs as far as we know (of course there is a big selection effect as most don’t get into 4th year as we take about 60 from an initial cohort of 300).
    (4) This goes over a decade. I don’t have data on the second question because these are just students you happen to know one way or another.
    (5) It’s not terrible — most people I know find their 4th years get decent jobs (in part because of the selection effect) and one of my friends who runs one of the main programs has hundreds of students from it on his Facebook. Of course no-one collects this data officially because that is almost impossible — the ABS has some — the only source is the graduate careers data (which I posted but it is stuck in spam) which has data on all sorts of things (not this instance), although not the long term stuff which is more important.

  36. Ikonoclast
    January 31st, 2016 at 13:05 | #36


    Oh well, I can only conclude my particular offspring under current discussion did not choose his or her major well plus I must note that undergraduate employment is slumping badly these days. From the perspective of working age people under 25 our economy is a total mess. I am not sure that many people over 25 are really aware of how bad it is unless they have working age non-student children in the under 25 cohort.

    I don’t resile from my political economy comments. This system is rapidly going to hell in a hand-basket. It will suffer extensive collapse (both environmental and economic) if it does not rapidly and radically change. But ossified economic dogma and the complacency of the already established are obscuring the patently obvious signals from a seriously dysfunctional system.

  37. conrad
    January 31st, 2016 at 13:53 | #37

    The job market was terrible when I finished my degree (in 1992 when the unemployment rate was 11%), but in the end I’ve spent one year unemployed since then so I don’t think just looking at the present state is going to tell you everything. There is in fact data on this — and it shows it is actually not so bad. You basically lose a year or two of your productive working life — but in the end who cares if you are going to work until 70. I’m not going to.

    As for wrong majors — this is one of the current problems — universities will run courses on almost anything if it gets students in, and the only other criterion they use for running things now is how cheaply it can be done. It’s all the case that unlike previously when a degree was more or less the end of education, it becomes like the US system where you need to keep on going (hence, in part, why 4th year pays off). This is partially the fault of universities dumbing things down, but there are also other factors like the school system being gamed more and more so standards there fall too and hence the input into universities is worse.

  38. Ikonoclast
    January 31st, 2016 at 14:52 | #38


    I take all your points. Of course, I am making predictions on a Marxian view of economic crisis and a Marxian-Green view of environmental crisis. This leads me to predict that, under a continuation of the current political economy system (capitalism), the next 25 years will be much worse than the last 25 years with respect to employment and a great many other parameters. Whether you or anyone else places any credence in such predictions will depend on your own “data purview” and “analysis grid” for considering such matters.

  39. Kel
    February 1st, 2016 at 01:43 | #39

    This sees to be a waltz down memory lane: when I got my degree it was worth having!

  40. Moz of Yarramulla
    February 1st, 2016 at 09:53 | #40

    Bloix :
    I simply don’t believe that for most business professionals, a three-or-four year university degree is a prerequisite. … compare professional environments that don’t demand degrees with those that do.

    I have pure anecdata, but from 20+ years in my field. Programmers without degrees are rarely worthwhile, and are disproportionately likely to be poor performers. They still exist, and there are people coming into employment now with TAFE certificates (of attendance, as far as I can tell), or simply self-taught. I know one, perhaps two, people who are competent programmers with no formal education, but I’ve worked with more than ten who I’d feel obliged to put scare quotes round… they’re “programmers” and often produce negative work – they waste more of other people’s potential work/time than they produce. I have also worked with degree-qualified anti-programmers, but they’re a smaller fraction of the pool.

    In IT more generally it’s common for people with jobs to rubbish the various post-employment certifications on the basis that they’re simple box-ticking. But it’s also common to have them comment that some doofus they work with has failed that certificate multiple times or only tries to get ones known to be easy. Much as I hate “while sub-sub-clause of the language spec does this bit of gibberish violate” type tests (we have tools to tell us that), it does weed out people who can’t get their head around how the language works. Unfortunately it fails to weed out those who merely fail to think clearly. Hence the rubbishing of those certificates.

    As a filter a degree works for my field. Admittedly my actual qualification is in a related field where the union makes it almost mandatory before they’ll admit someone to the profession (after passing the separate professional exam, of course).

  41. GrueBleen
    February 2nd, 2016 at 14:32 | #41


    Well I wasn’t going to intrude on all the happy meditations again, but …

    1. Of course the USA is “self destructing”, all empires do in time – inter alia Egypt, Akkad, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, Athens, Carthage, Rome, India (a couple of times), China (several times), Britain – and now America (with a probable repeat Chinese resurgence). It always comes to a head at about the time that the empire becomes obsessed by its own magnificence and exceptionalism. Besides, the USA imported a lot of its brains over time – how many of the A-Bomb (and H-Bomb) projects were ‘native’ Americans.

    2. For a ‘puny’ nation, it’s not too bad that Australia has the worlds 12th largest economy by exchange valuation (though a fair bit smaller by PPP) in the nation that’s 52nd largest by population (0.33% of the world). Which gives Australia a tremendous GDP per capita ranking, yes ? 7th in the world (just marginally smaller than Singapore). Not too bad for such a “puny nation”.

  42. Paul H
    February 7th, 2016 at 02:29 | #42

    @Ikonoclast I’m an ‘umble onlooker here; a kind of ‘layman’, as many here are, or were, academics, it seems.

    A couple of things. Our daughter gained a fashion/textile degree from a well-known university here. This institution used to be a CAE, and it took over that degree from what was SCA (Sydney College of the Arts, based at the old Callan Park, where I worked decades ago, but that’s another story).
    In the four hard slog years she did her degree, (and contrary to popular notions about the fashion industry, it was a rigorous degree with what looked like high standards), she was starting to see a decline in standards, for want of a better term. Some, but not all, of this related to basic language difficulties experienced by overseas fee-paying students. She finished the course, and was desperate to get out as these issues were becoming a burden to, let’s say, the more talented end of the cohort, who were effectively carrying others in group work. But this of course was not the only issue.
    When she entered there 10 years ago, it was touch and go, and the entry rating/ranking (its acronym escapes me now), was 94.5. If you didn’t have that, tough titties. Today, I gather, you could have a significantly lowered ranking as long as you were a fee-payer, rather than a HECSer. Surely a distortion, and an academic conundrum.

    And, while mentioning CAEs, someone here might know.. was Dawkins (he of Vocation & Training board), the main dismantler of the CAE/Diploma structure? Or was it more complicated over time? I tried to find this out from a journo who did a thing on the failed WA university, but never received an answer from him.

  43. Ikonoclast
    February 7th, 2016 at 05:49 | #43

    @Paul H

    Even among commenters just here on this blog, I am sure I am not the most knowledgeable about these matters. A lot of “us” (people like you and me) feel there has been a drop in standards and that “fees for degrees” has played a role in making things worse. Having said that, I don’t subscribe to a “golden age” theory either. It is arguable that my late 1970s Humanities degree was a “wank” and those were the days of TEAS not fees. Having said that, I did get some education in thinking outside the dominant ideological paradigm. That kind of critical thinking seems rarer these days.

  44. Bloix
    February 8th, 2016 at 08:18 | #44

    @Moz of Yarramulla Are you talking about degrees in programming or just degrees? I know several people who had degrees in other areas (mathematics, English lit, anthropology) and taught themselves programming – and they’ve been successful. The implication to me is that smart people who have learned the discipline necessary to train in a new field can succeed in programming even if self-taught.

    But my point is that an industry can train its own professionals. But if the government provides training that puts the cost (either through subsidy or by guaranteed student loans) elsewhere, then industries would be behaving irrationally if they continued to pay for training.

    So, if industry-directed training ceases to exist, then the only avenue for professional success is the university, and JQ’s statement that attending university is a “good decision” for many individual students is of course true. In the US, at least, it is a bad decision for a large number of individuals, and everywhere it may be that university for all is not a good decision for society as a whole.

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