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Creeping credentialism

By Mercurius Goldstein - posted Friday, 14 July 2006

An unwarranted and counterproductive sense of entitlement pervades middle-class attitudes towards education.

Few things give me greater pleasure than to peruse the biographical data of a conspicuously successful individual and to find that they do not possess a university degree. This is revealed in the CVs of a range of notable Australians in business, in trades, the arts, politics or sport.

The deliciousness of this becomes complete when some hapless tertiary institution will award one such individual an honorary degree, literally to paper over the inconvenient fact that their success had nothing whatsoever to do with university education. Last year a Crikey columnist, with too much time to kill, compiled this list of such impressarios.


Why does a prospective teacher derive such glee from this situation? Because these Australians are "one in the eye" for the great middle-class myth that a university education is an essential ingredient for a fulfilling life.

Such people are living reminders that success often depends far more on hard work, inspired intuition, social skills and not a small measure of rat cunning. Whereas many anxious middle-class parents prefer to believe, and to inculcate in their children, the corrosive belief that once you have a degree, you've "got it made". Of course, none of this helps when all their middle-class mates grow up to possess identical qualifications. The reality is that when everybody has a degree, nobody has a degree; and any competitive advantage in the job market is lost.

This was not the case in previous generations. Even 50 years ago, a second-class honours degree would have opened up undreamed-of opportunities for an aspiring young professional and was enough to begin the academic career-track leading to professorship. Whereas today, a humble lecturer might generally be expected to possess doctoral or even postdoctoral qualifications. Thus we have the absurd situation of 20-something PhDs twittering about our campuses, some with more qualifications than the dean, yet without the professional aptitude to even hold down an evening job as a market researcher. Yet middle-class parents are prepared to go to absurd lengths to secure such "vital" qualifications for their brood.

This "creeping credentialism", as it's known, propels much of the anxiety behind so many pronouncements about education. It drives the clamour to open more and bigger universities, to fund more and more places, as though it is incumbent upon society to bestow upon everyone the purported blessings of higher education. And most counter-productive of all, it diverts everyone's efforts in secondary education toward university placement, as though that is the crux of one's life.

This would be all very well if the real motivation for doing so lived up to the rhetoric. We hear so much about higher education being an investment in Australia's future, that it is a necessary ingredient of an enlightened society and so on. But the individuals receiving such taxpayer largesse are hardly prodigies. When as many as one-in-four of the workforce now have degrees, then by definition much of the funding is going to people who are anything but exceptional.

It's time to face up to a few uncomfortable truths: first, our society would derive the greatest social benefit from universities that remain small-scale, academically elitist institutions of higher learning, where funds can be focussed on nurturing the very, very few great minds that any one generation produces. Instead, we have bloated, notionally egalitarian degree-mills that try to make modern-day philosophers out of gormless middle-class children.


Second, most of the motivation for more and better education is entirely venal. It is a bid by parents for more power, money or prestige - and they are hell bent on obtaining as much of it as their chequebooks will buy. We can all read the rhetoric about well-heeled schools and sandstone universities that want to "help individuals reach their potential" and "become a mature member of society", but this is covering up the baser reasons. It is to protect privilege and ensure that young Cassandra and Joel both get a bigger slice of the pie than their parents did.

Perhaps more controversial, degree-less success stories suggest that other long-cherished beliefs may also be untrue. For if people can succeed with little in the way of formal education, then the classroom may be less important than many teachers would like to believe.

For example, there is the myth of education as a tool of social mobility. This romantic story goes that the keys to the kingdom are in the chalk-dusted hands of teachers and that disadvantaged kids can nevertheless attain a better life for themselves through striving at the chalk-face. Yet despite the fact that more than 75 per cent of NSW children now complete Year 12, compared with around 30 per cent a generation ago, income and wealth inequality grows with every decade. This makes the “social mobility” view of education look a little shaky.

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About the Author

Mercurius Goldstein is Head Teacher at an International School and is retained as a consultant at The University of Sydney as a teacher educator for visiting English language teachers. He is a recipient of the 2007 Outstanding Graduate award from the Australian College of Educators, holding the Bachelor of Education (Hons.1st Class) from The University of Sydney. He teaches Japanese language and ESL. These views are his own.

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