Havachats are week-long email dialogues between two prominent advocates on an issue of the day. To vote on the issue and make your view count, click here.
Day 1 . 2
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Andrew goes first. Carolyn responds.
From: Andrew Norton
To: Carolyn Allport
Sent: Friday, September 26, 2003 9:41 AM
Subject: Educating who for what and why
I'm glad you mentioned the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee (AVCC) target of 60% participation in higher education by 2020, because whether that number
makes any sense is well worth discussing.
To put things in context, in 2001 less than a third of all school leavers went on to higher education. Even with that relatively low - at least relative to the
ultimate 60% target - number, some universities were taking students with marginal academic potential. This showed in very high attrition rates among the weaker
students. We know little about university drop-outs, but I doubt they gain much from their short time in higher education. Expanding the system is likely to result
in still more people leaving university with little or nothing to show for it.
Or we can look at his issue from another angle, the labour market. Just over 20% of people aged 25-64 currently have degrees, so we are sitting at about a
third of the AVCC's target. Actual unemployment for gradutes, below 3%, is low. But more than 20% are working in jobs that don't require degrees. We don't know
to what extent this is a matter of choice, and to what extent graduates have simply
failed to translate their degrees into appropriate work. But with only a few chronic labour market shortages for graduates, mostly in health and a few specialist types
of teachers, there isn't much evidence that we need more people coming out of the universities.
A few years back Monash University's Centre for Policy Studies forecast demand for graduates. They predicted an extra 550,000 jobs between 1997 and 2010. It
sounds like a lot, but even if we leave student numbers as they are now Australia's universities will churn out more than a million graduates in that time period.
I've never seen any material from the AVCC that suggests their 60% target is based on good social science - in fact I don't think it is even based on bad social science. It was just plucked out the air. It's not a 'benchmark' we should take any notice of.
The government has been hinting at this issue, highlighting drop-out rates and suggesting that university isn't for everyone. Their chosen method for keeping
numbers down is a quota system for government-subsidised places, and price for the non-subsidised places.
This is rather crude. While acknowledging the limits in using the past to predict the future, we need to look much more carefully at our recent experience of mass
education. We must understand better who goes to university, how well they do, and what happens to them after they leave, with or without a degree.
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