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Graduates clear tables and ask: "was my degree worth it?"

Opinion

Competition for graduate jobs in South Australia is fierce, prompting Malcolm King to ask: when will our universities start to focus on quality over quantity?

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No-one would have believed in the early years of the 21st century that young men and women were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than their own; that as they busied themselves for new careers, university marketing departments regarded them with hungry eyes. They drew their plans to enrol them.

The tempest bearing down on universities draws its energy from young people’s dreams of a good job after graduation. But there is a chasm between the dream and the reality.

In their quest for more taxpayer dollars, should publicly funded universities ignore the perilous state of the full-time employment market?

Late last year job advertisement market aggregator, Adzuna, found 22 university graduates were competing for every new graduate position nationally. The competition for graduate jobs was worst in South Australia with 46 recent university graduates fighting for each job.

There is a serious disconnection between enrolments and the local job market. According to Commonwealth Department of Education and Training figures, there were 11,895 domestic bachelor degree graduates from the three major South Australian universities in 2016. Including postgraduates, this figure rose to a whopping 19,680 graduates.

Many students do find work two or three years after graduating. Graduate surveys brag about this but, for many, it’s not the type of work they trained for.

While universities brag about ‘employability’, that’s not the same as career-targeted employment.

We are creating a nation of baristas with double degrees.

For the last 30 years, universities have packed their faculties with professional and vocational degree programs. When criticised that many of these programs don’t lead to jobs, they say they’re not job factories and that striving for knowledge shouldn’t be connected to crass questions of employment.

For some, a university degree works very well. These graduates secure stable, well-paying jobs. These ‘success stories’ are profiled on university websites and in glossy brochures – especially if the graduates come from poor or migrant backgrounds. But the part does not tell the whole.

For 13 years I worked as a programs director and senior lecturer for a large technical university in Melbourne. I rose through the ranks by writing and launching new industry-based programs. I was responsible for 50 staff and about 1500 students.

I saw graduates and post-graduates in other schools and universities end up on Newstart after being charged HECS or full fees. Many did worthless “Job Active” taxpayer-subsidised training courses.

They wasted their skills and qualifications doing menial jobs that paid so little, they couldn’t afford to leave home or start repaying their HECS debt. Some employers exploited them as long-term, unpaid interns.

When the university asked me to write and promote non-industry-based degrees, I refused. I was a foot soldier in a war between two very different worlds. I belonged to a conservative yet collegiate past. The new head of school and the upper echelons of the university were hardline managerialists. I left 12 months later.

Why create qualifications that aren’t in the interests of the students or employers?

We are creating a nation of baristas with double degrees.

Universities must change their focus from the production of more and more graduates to a greater concentration on graduate quality.

Many students go on to complete graduate diplomas, master’s degrees or PhDs, in the hope higher credentials will secure a job.

It’s a risky Catch 22 strategy because they rack up HECs debts the size of a large house deposit. There’s also every chance employers will knock them back because they’re over-qualified.

The good news is that over a lifetime, when students do land a job they are trained for, university graduates earn on average 40 to 75 per cent more than workers who go to work straight from school. One estimate puts the lifetime earnings of male graduates on average at $2.3 million compared to $1.7 million for school leavers.

But people working in the mines make more money than most doctors and lawyers. A good plumber will pull in more than $100,000 per year.

Students plan their enrolments on university marketing collateral and the statistics contained in graduate employment surveys. Buyer beware. Averages do not predict individual student employment outcomes or starting salaries. The job market is flooded with degree candidates.

Many students also have unrealistic expectations of what a degree will provide. The focus for some is solely on securing the credential. Many graduate with poor critical thinking skills, as if the three pillars of learning – context, logic and structure – have been pushed aside like uneaten Brussels sprouts from the plate of a fussy child.

Universities are big business. Our 38 public university vice-chancellors were paid on average $890,000 in 2016 and 12 earned more than $1 million. In addition to these lucrative salaries, many vice-chancellors draw performance-related bonuses.

At the corporate-driven university, the ability of vice-chancellors and their senior colleagues to generate income is pivotal. This is critically true for two large, publicly funded universities in SA.

The proposal to merge UniSA and the University of Adelaide, is about survival, as local prospective students either study online at interstate universities or they move to Melbourne or Sydney. Student contact hours have remained relatively constant due to falling entry requirements. This strategy has a limited shelf life.

Universities don’t fear that students and parents will rebel against the production line nature of institutional education. They don’t fear that the HECS debt will be a yoke around students’ neck for 20 or 30 years. They fear that future Federal Governments will reduce student intake numbers.

Universities must change their focus from the production of more and more graduates to a greater concentration on graduate quality. They must spike the spin and give prospective students realistic data on their employment prospects in their chosen field.

Let the debate about the future of youth employment turn towards a more realistic view of 21st-century job creation, and the important role universities and the vocational education sector will play in this.

Malcolm King, an Adelaide writer, works in generational change and is a regular InDaily columnist.

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