Education is an investment, not a filter

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.

44 thoughts on “Education is an investment, not a filter

  1. @conrad
    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.

  2. 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.

  3. @Mayson

    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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. “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).

  7. @Ikonoclast
    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.

  8. @conrad

    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.

  9. (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.

  10. @conrad

    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.

  11. @Ikonoclast
    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.

  12. @conrad

    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.

  13. 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).

  14. @Ikonoclast

    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”.

  15. @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.

  16. @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.

  17. @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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