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Measuring a student's work ethic for Youth Allowance doesn't quite add up

By Sebastian De Brennan - posted Friday, 6 August 2004


In his article, Adam Craig argues that the youth allowance should be awarded according to student’s work ethic. From the outset, this article rests on shaky ground, simply glossing over the fundamental issue as to how one's work ethic is to be measured. Towards the end of the piece it is clear that Craig wishes to tie the amount of youth allowance paid to students to their tertiary entrance rank and then, from that point on, to their attainment of high distinctions, distinctions etc. for the duration of their university course.

This is not so much a measure of work ethic but rather a reflection of an individual's ability to attain top grades. As a final year bachelor of commerce/bachelor of laws student and a beneficiary of youth allowance myself, I know that many of my peers secure excellent grades with far less study than me. To deny this is to indulge in sweeping generalisations about the makeup of tertiary institutions. Craig states:

High-achievers, irrespective of discipline, have one thing in common - an amazing capacity for hard work. It is true that most are intelligent but this is not the characteristic that takes people to the top, for there are equally capable people that do well but not nearly so well. Walk into a law library at the start of a semester and people are putting in 60-hour weeks while TAFE students copy answers out of text books the night before a piece of assessment is handed in. But we can go a step further with this critique. In every discipline, there are first-class honours students and bare-pass students. Again, the only thing that separates these people is their work ethic.

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Any objective assessment acknowledges that there is more than work ethic at play here. At once the student in the "law library" becomes the exemplar of 'hard work" in dire contrast to the TAFE student who resorts to "copying out answers from text books the night before" (a cursory gloss of the footnotes reveals that Craig himself is a law student). On what grounds this sweeping statement is made, Craig does not venture to say. As a law student with reasonable grades, I confess to completing an assignment or two the night before. Indeed, I know one student who graduated with first class honours through this approach, and another who consistently performs well through her deference to a photographic memory. Conversely, there are other students in my course that, for all their efforts, will struggle to fetch upper quartile marks. We all know of stories, often glorified, of individuals who struggled during their studies only to become leaders in their professions later in life.

In Craig's article the importance of certain professions (such as law) to the workings of society is elevated, but without evidence of the economic utility of these professions over others.

Of concern is Craig's indifference to intelligence as a decisive factor in determining a students' ability to perform well in his or her assessments. If we are truly to reward one's work ethic shouldn't the hard working TAFE student be entitled to just as much youth allowance as the law student? Instead, the course in which one is enrolled is said to forecast their propensity for hard work.

Equally concerning is Craig's suggestion that a greater amount of youth allowance be paid to those studying in "Australia's elite universities". However, what about those students who receive tertiary entrance ranks of the highest order but do not wish to study at an elite university for whatever reason. Consider the predicament of a student residing in the Macarthur region, who due to local transport difficulties, a desire not to spend some two and a half hours daily travelling to the University of Sydney, together with a desire to avoid impending HECS increases opts to study at the University of Western Sydney Campbelltown campus. That we can divide universities into first "second- and third-rate universities" ignores the plight of younger and regional universities who do not enjoy the advantages which flow from a long history, and prestigious alumni.  Moreover, there are a number of Australian universities that would not be axiomatically regarded as elite universities yet have nevertheless built up impressive reputations in certain areas.

Conspicuously absent in Craig's solution is a discussion of the dire state of youth allowance at present. With the report of the senate community affairs committee into poverty and financial hardship in Australia released in March it is a particularly opportune time to look at some of the evidence that was presented. The report highlighted as a significant concern the impact of poverty in preventing young people completing education. In relation to youth allowance there were many submissions made to the committee about the inadequacy of it as a benefit. Information was provided that young people under 21 receiving youth allowance were living on an income 32 per cent below the poverty line.

In this regard, there are systematic shortfalls in the amount of money being devoted to tertiary students. Dealing with those shortfalls, by apportioning money to the elite only via the hazy concept of "work ethic" is clearly not the answer.

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Article edited by Ian Miller.
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About the Author

Sebastian De Brennan is principal of De Brennan & Co. Consulting and teaches in the College of Law & Business at the University of Western Sydney and the School of Business at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

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