Stop the Degrees!


Sometimes education can narrow the mind and Australia is becoming a prime example. We have become obsessed with credentials for their own sake.

We have too many people with bachelor’s degrees, when diplomas would suffice. And to be brutally frank, too many, in NSW, with the Higher School Certificate. One of Labor’s obsessions of the 1980s raising high school retention rates has seriously backfired and compromised the quality of education.

The teaching of technical skills, which should be shared between the workplace and technical colleges, has been crammed into already-bulging school curricula. Every time another troubling social phenomenon arises, we seem to answer it with a new course at high school, a new demand on time-pressed, often underpaid, and certainly underappreciated teachers.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Thanks to Bill Leak

One of the more ridiculous examples occurred late last year, during a spate of car accidents involving reckless under-age drivers. The NSW Opposition called for, and the Government agreed to study, ‘mandatory driver education’ in the State’s high schools. Who, pray tell, will do the teaching and, more to the point, when? Unless we are prepared to extend the school day until 5:00pm, driver education will become another encroachment on the time available to teach core classes literacy, numeracy, history, the sciences, languages, literature, basic economics, music and, to a point, the creative and manual arts.

(I’m actually in favour of extending the school day until 6:00pm for students from years 9 to 12, with an hour off between 3:30pm and 4:30pm and 90 minutes of supervised homework under the watch of semi-retired teachers given that not all kids have a home life conducive to study.)

The constant call on our schools to do more only allows parents to abdicate their responsibilities or, even more to the point, justifies the parents’ employers demanding more time in the workplace and away from the family. The oppressive industrial relations ‘reforms’ proposed by Howard will only worsen the situation.

But my fellow progressives are hugely misguided, even if they are basically well-intentioned, in shepherding hundreds of thousands of kids into years 11 and 12 when they are simply ill-suited to the academic rigour and self discipline that senior school should demand.

The NSW Board of Studies now has, as part of its Higher School Certificate syllabus, something called ‘Building and Construction’ and within the subject are sub-sets dealing with ‘materials handling’, ‘solid plastering’ and ‘structural cladding’, designed to ensure students meet Australian minimum qualifications. The course requires between 14 and 70 hours in the workplace. It sounds awfully like a course they once taught in a Technical and Further Education college.

There is another course for the ‘Entertainment Industry’ involving classes in ‘front of house’ and ‘stage management’, along with the now traditional drama and dance classes. But if you’ve seen Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban’s classic and extremely realistic portrayal of life in the musical theatre, A Chorus Line, you’d know that such skills are best taught as you rush between acting classes and waiting tables. We also have high school classes in hospitality, video and digital imaging, retail, tourism and this amorphous thing called ‘life studies’.

The point is that these industries, trades and crafts old and new have their own intrinsic honour, their own innate value. Apart from the obvious need to ensure that the people who build our skyscrapers, connect our power lines and manufacture our cars have the highest safety and quality standards, they do not need and most of their practitioners do not demand some pseudo-academic patina from being included in the HSC curriculum.

Our universities have, arguably, been corrupted even more by the quest for credentials. It’s an alarming day when I find myself agreeing with a right-wing Howard Government minister, but Brendan Nelson was surely right when he questioned the need for courses in aromatherapy, surfing and golf course management. Swinburne University, a place with a great tradition when it was a humble ‘institute’, infamously offered academic qualifications in make-up application for drag queens. You can get a degree in this stuff?

Fifteen years ago, when I was at Sydney University cramming for exams in Modern History, Philosophy, and Political Science, my friends and I would joke about the people who had enrolled in the new ‘Leisure Studies’ course but dropped out because it was too demanding and we actually knew some who had. Nowadays, ‘Leisure Studies’ seems to be one of the more taxing academic disciplines. Bachelor’s degrees, even with honours, are being devalued. If everyone has a BA, then no one does.

There are some occupations, such as nursing, where technologies and responsibilities, which are literally life-saving, have become especially complex. They are now true professions and we properly afford them a place in higher education.

But the great mistake was the abolition of the binary system of education, which reflected a kind of grasping professionalism. Believe it not, there were very good teachers who simply wanted to teach, and the American model of small liberal arts colleges were, and could again be, the ideal system. Such US colleges build their reputations on the breadth of general knowledge of their graduates on the great books they read and the scholars they study. That nation’s vital research occurs in the bigger universities, in partnership between the professors and the post-graduates. It is why America still lures the finest academic minds.

Australian undergraduates specialise too early, so that, compared with the US, where it is common to find Wall Street bankers who studied English Lit, we have produced a narrow-minded commercial and professional class that seems semi-literate beyond the balance sheet. This is very troubling for progressives, who believe or should in the value of a classical liberal education.

Australian universities should be developing two forms of teaching at the post-graduate level, especially in professional schools dealing with law, business and the media: a ‘tenure’ track, for true, life-long scholars with doctorates; and a ‘professional’ track for those who wish to move between the academy and industry, and are able to teach the latest innovation to post-graduates.

I don’t deny that the parlous state of Australian higher education the appallingly low salaries for academics who have spent a decade in training, the limited research budgets, the shifting of clerical chores onto scholars can be blamed largely on the Howard Government’s miserly funding. And I certainly do not deny that the increasingly utilitarian nature of education, where courses are purely market-driven to appeal to fee-paying students, is responsible for the proliferation of Mickey Mouse degrees.

And recognising the nation’s skills shortage, I think there needs to be a major expansion of our technical and occupational training system. But inventing degrees for the sake of a paper credential only devalues genuine scholarship and learning.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.