This piece was informed by a bit of research from the Melbourne Institute, a couple of years ago. This found students with an "internal locus of control" (unsurprisingly) achieved better outcomes at uni than those who were "externally directed".
When admission to courses is allocated by the universities according simply to the TER marks students achieve, it seems apparent that aspirants for places aren't starting off on the right foot. Would be students need to be more empowered, although this is simply one of many issues explored below . . .
CHOOSING UNIVERSITIES; KNOWLEDGE, SKILLS OR TRAINING
A bright new year has dawned and aspiring university students across the country are trying to decide exactly what they're going to do for the next three, four or five years. Two significant additions have been thrown into the mix since the days -- so long ago now, it seems -- when I left school. The first (and it's undoubtedly a change for the better) is that it's become normal to add a so-called "gap" year into your CV at some point during tertiary education.
There's no definitive agreement about the timing of this year-off. Should it be taken, for example, immediately after the school years, to allow young people to experience life appeared and help them choose which particular university course they should do? Or perhaps to help them mature a bit before supposedly knuckling down to the rest of their life? Or is it better to preserve that time, either for a break during uni (particularly if it doesn't turn out quite the way it was meant to) or even later, before commencing work? For whichever reason, this time becomes an important period in many people's lives.
It's all about control. For many young people this will be the first time that they've had the opportunity to really choose which direction their lives will take. Unfortunately, throwing off the weight of parental expectations and peer pressure (together with the weight of the expectations that society implicitly assigns to individuals based on nothing more or less than a tertiary admissions rank) is too great for most of us.
In the end, however, it is people's own decisions that will be vital in determining the happiness, successful or otherwise, of lives that are increasingly shaped during this time. From just over 2500 students at the time the Federation (out of a population of nearly 3.8 million), the student body has soared. In 2007 the total number of people studying exceeded one million for the first time, an increase of nearly 5 percent from the previous year. This was, however, artificially boosted for political purposes by the then Minister by lumping together everyone, including overseas students, undergoing some form of further study or training. The more relevant statistic is that, last year, nearly 250,000 applicants found themselves attempting to squeeze into just over 191,000 vacancies. Just over half of all applicants received an offer for their first choice of university.
The difficulty is that the increased specialisation of bachelor-level degrees is forcing large numbers of people to choose their future career path at an early stage. When I joined the ABC in 1985, only one of those five eager cadets had tertiary training in anything approaching journalism. Unfortunately, I wasn't that fortunate individual. ("Aha," I can hear regular readers muttering in Unison. "This explains a great deal!") That fact didn't mean, however, that the intake was composed of ingénues. Amongst us we shared degrees in economics, arts, and law while I had just returned from studying overseas. Of this small group, three were later to became overseas correspondents for the corporation; one moved to a senior editorial position with a major newspaper; while the last was persuaded by the nuns at her former school to write what eventually became a bestselling biography of Mary McKillop, Australia's first saint. Unfortunately, these ladies didn't have a complete understanding of the modern dynamics of what makes the country tick. When my friend wondered how much money she'd be receiving for her work, the nuns initially attempted to assure her that, "her reward would come in heaven".
Today, the ratio of generalists compared to those who've received specialist training has been reversed. This means that, regrettably, many universities have become increasingly focused on narrow educational outcomes, although ones which are understandably designed to give people a leg-up into their first steps into job market. This is seen as the goal of education today, rather than seeking to equip individuals with broader analytical skills or understanding. Initially, this approach appears to be sensible because it is based on a vision of the real world: one where work occupies a central place in our society. We need to remove this bureaucratic approach to life, replacing it instead with a vision that restores a central place to the individual.
An enormous amount of public money is thrown into the current system of tertiary education. What's surprising is that so little effort is put into any rigorous investigation of the outcome. The framework is blithely accepted, even by the reports (of which merely the latest is the Bradley Review) that pretend to subject the entire process to intellectual analysis. It just is.
We don't need to endorse the current approach, indeed we shouldn't. Melbourne University has become the first institution to challenge the idea that school-leavers are equipped to decide on the rest of their life at the age of 18. Introduced in 2008 it abolished 96 (more specialised) undergraduate level courses replacing them with six generalist qualifications -- after which students are expected to pay from their own pocket for further degrees in specialised areas. The financial realities underlying the introduction of the model, coupled with the close relationship between then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Melbourne's vice chancellor Glyn Davis led, not unnaturally, to suspicions about the motivation for the change. Although it has been accompanied by a chorus of ridicule and condemnation, it still far too early to determine if the model will prove successful. But before ‘success’ can be measured its necessary to define exactly what we expect university to provide.
If time spent at university is simply meant to equip young people for jobs, then surely criticism first needs to be directed elsewhere. Why, for example, do our universities produce three times more journalists than there are jobs for them? Perhaps training in this trade might assist people filling other roles -- although maybe they'd be better-off simply equipped with the broader exposure offered by an arts degree instead. As has been noted elsewhere, many of the current government's staffers -- including Julia Gillard's own chief-of-staff -- began their working life as journalists. This fact can be used to prove (depending on your point-of-view) either the utility of such a degree or, alternately, how useless graduates with this educational background prove to be.
Perceptions about how "good" any particular courses are inevitably tend to focus on how difficult they are to enter. This suits the universities because it turns back the stress to perform, placing it on the students. They are the ones who have to justify their place and demonstrate that they can perform well enough to be accepted. If they later dropout it's assumed that they have somehow failed to measure up to the standard and they must wear the opprobrium associated with that.
This way of thinking has allowed universities to escape the analytical approach they claim to teach. Currently nearly one-third of students who commence their course in the next months will have departed by the end of the year. Not all will leave the sector completely -- some will change courses or universities while others will defer. This enormous rate of rejection would not be acceptable in any other industry. It's a pity that drop-out rates are not given the same prominence as details of how high the admission scores for particular courses are. There's still plenty of room for reform in this sector.