Why does everybody have to go to university?

Since I went to school education has changed. I suppose it should in over half a century, but while some things are better, a lot (in my opinion) are not. I think the arbiters of education, the public servants in their ivory towers, have become so busy negotiating the murky waters of political correctness they’ve lost sight of the goal posts. Why do we send kids to school?

I reckon we send kids to school to learn how to read, write (type), and add up. That is, the fundamental skills. I was going to add ‘skills without which you won’t get far in this day and age’. But that’s rubbish, isn’t it? How often do you see kids (in particular) turning to a calculator to perform simple addition like 2 cups of coffee @ $3.50 each? THE most important thing you can do for kids in a classroom is get them to WANT to learn. Then (with the necessary skills) they’ll teach themselves. It sound a lot like the Montessori system. You teach kids about social studies, geography, maths, accounting systems, marketing etc etc by showing them what happens at a supermarket. Applied learning. Sure, I understand that greater discipline is required for those who want to go on to university. Scientists need more than basic maths skills, for example.

But not everybody needs to go to university.

All those years ago, I struggled with a choice: give up the ‘professional’ stream of study at high school, and join the other girls and boys intending to leave school at fifteen and learn a trade or earn a wage. I came from a working-class family. There wasn’t much money to spare, so I discussed my options with my mum.

To add some context, at that time high school students were placed according to academic ability as established in a public exam at the end of year seven before going on to high school. I was up there in 1A, signifying the smartest kids in first year. It went on from there to 1B, 1C and so on to something like 1M. (I’m a baby boomer.) At the end of first year, we were asked at the tender age of around fourteen, to decide where our school years would take us from then on. Back then, quite a few girls in 1A opted for the ‘commercial’ stream, where they would learn shorthand and typing. Boys in that stream would concentrate on ‘male’ skills like woodwork and metalwork, as well as basic maths and language skills.

My mum always had higher aspirations for me. She listened to my concerns over money and told me to take the professional stream.

The next hurdle in education was what was called the Junior Certificate, a public exam taken at the end of third year high school (year ten). At that point students with no aspirations for academic places could leave school and enter a brave new world. I obviously didn’t leave shool, and, with the help of scholarships to help fund my studies in years eleven and twelve and then to study at university, I graduated with a BA(Hons).

Which brings me to the point of this essay. I know life has changed since the sixties. I know there is less work for unskilled young people – or very skilled young people. But why is forcing them to attend twelve years of school going to help? In its wisdom the education system has watered down the public examination system by including continuous assessment components, and added Naplan, where little kids are tested at absurdly young ages. It seems they’re all being trained to fit the lowest common denominator. You don’t have A, B and C classes anymore. The brightest kids are put in with the dumbest, so nobody’s feelings are hurt. Teachers are expected to cope with vast variations in both ability, and expectations. Johnny wants to learn how to use a lathe, not muck about with history lessons. Mary doesn’t need Johnny’s disruptions – she’s there to learn.

Much is said about the quality of teachers. To which I say, if you haven’t been there, don’t presume to judge. I’m not saying corporal punishment is a great thing, but these days teachers have no means of controlling young thugs like Johnny, who doesn’t want to be there and is immune from any form of discipline. Teachers are asked to cover a multitude of subjects, and carry out education in matters which belong in the home, not the classroom. I’ve always thought that education should be about teaching people the basics, like reading, maths, and (these days) typing. Sketch in some geography and basic history – enough to get them interested – and then encourage them to use that wonderful device, the internet, to learn what they want. Perhaps THE most important lesson people these days need to learn is that there are fake media sites, Wikipedia is not the whole story, and that to understand something properly, it’s necessary to consult more than one point of view. I think we could call it ‘how to research’.

Back in the olden days we did research in libraries, where we needed at least a basic knowledge of the Dewey decimal system and how to use index cards. It’s so much easier now – but I’d suggest that there is still a need to follow the denser path and read the books.

But I digress. What has happened to the TAFE colleges? The Institutes of Technology? They used to be where people went to learn a trade, to delve into the nuts and bolts of technology, or carpentry, or commercial cooking. That’s where the kids from the commercial stream at high school went, to learn a trade as they did their apprenticeship. There are no TAFE colleges anymore, or Institutes of Technology. There are only universities. Because that way, even if you’re learning a trade, you get to go to university. Whoop-ti-do. It seems to me that the result of this move is that a drover’s dog can get a degree in something at an erstwhile TAFE. Maybe that makes the recipient feel good, but it devalues the degree I earned at UWA, because the assumption is those qualifications are equivalent.

I don’t believe they are.

Despite all being labeled as universities, they are fundamentally different in their approach.  Once again, I turn to my own experience. I have (as mentioned) a BA(Hons) from UWA (the University of Western Australia). I also have a Graduate Diploma in Education from what was then Claremont Teachers’ College, became a campus of Edith Cowan University, and is now a part of UWA. And I also have a Graduate Diploma in Business and Administration (with distinction) from what was then the WA Institute of Technology, and is now Curtin University. This was all back before 1990, I admit. I’ll add I’ve compared my experience with friends who had a similar mix of studies at various institutions.

We all agreed that the standards required at UWA were far higher than that expected at WAIT, and at Claremont Teachers’ College. The fact is they taught different skills. UWA taught you how to think, and do research, and pretty well left you to it. If you didn’t go to lectures, nobody cared. The results would advertise your lack of effort. WAIT aimed its courses at practical skills, like how to program a computer or carry out radiography. Lecturers there provided hands-on, practical courses with the associated ‘how to’ in documentation and the like. Ie. You will plan and present your work LIKE THIS. Claremont taught students how to teach primary kids (under 12), with an emphasis on practical work.

And here, I think, we come to the nub of all of this. Listen up, Government. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH BEING A PLUMBER, CARPENTER, RADIOGRAPHER, PROGRAMMER or CHEF. They do not need to be glorified with a degree. Horses for courses.

UPDATE: There are TAFE colleges, and they teach trades as they always did. However, in my defence, I based this article on my own experience in Perth. And it would seem there has been a re-think. Here’s a quote from the WA TAFE website.

“A recent change that occurred to the TAFE system in Western Australia saw a merger occur between the former Central Institute of Technology and the West Coast Institute of Training. The new organisation is the North Metropolitan TAFE, which combines the facilities and resources of both institutes to provide students with a better quality TAFE education. This formed part of a major change to the TAFE system in WA, in which all institutes were joined to form five new TAFE schools. in addition to the North Metropolitan TAFE, these include South Metropolitan TAFE, Central Regional TAFE, South Regional TAFE and North Regional TAFE.”

So you see, we’re changing names. Just as we renamed the Personnel Department to Human Resources. Same role, same staff. But now it’s two words.

And this week I have a new lens to play with.

A baby lorikeet. Note the detail

A couple of pink and grey galahs practising ballet on the TV aerial

2 thoughts on “Why does everybody have to go to university?

  1. Meredith Gurr

    Oh boy, education has always been a big bugbear with me. I detest the conventional approach so much that I have deferred to the likes of A.S. Neill’s Summerhill in the U.K. A radical departure, but is it a viable alternative? Only if the children are caught before they’re exposed to society’s norms and education’s mindless regimentation. “Progressive” eduction is a wonderful thing, but it’s not for every child (and it *is* all about the children, not the parents). I will forever admire and respect and support everything A.S. Neill believed in. Summerhill now sadly seems to be a product of its time, though. Where does technology fit into the Summerhill equation? I can’t imagine it *should* affect Neill’s “freedom, not licence” philosopy, but his time was (in many ways) blissfully devoid of such complications.

    When I went to high school, we were split into three groups: below average, average and above average. I was average, but in no way did this enhance my educational experience. It made me feel inadequate and stupid and incapable of doing what the above average kids did. Branded before we even began to experience and contribute to life. I hated high school; the bullying, the isolation, being made to feel I was worthless and abnormal. The teachers were crap and didn’t care, and one of them bullied me mercilessly in front of the class. Nothing I was taught had any meaning or context and didn’t help me in later life. I had no hope of ever surviving and succeeding at university.

    Jane Elliott is my heroine. But, of course, that was more about becoming tolerant and accepting human beings. If I had to name a teacher who actually made a positive difference in my life, it would be several from primary school in the 1960s. And yes, going to primary school in the 1960s is something I wouldn’t trade for anything, ever. My home life was devoid of everything a lot of children take for granted, but I was never bullied or treated badly at primary school, despite having the very same issues that set me so far apart from my fellow students at high school. I love the 1960s, warts and all. I’m no doubt being sentimental and nostalgic, but out of everything bad I’ve experienced, and the fact that I wasn’t old enough to really appreciate it, I will never regret living through the 1960s. Education, amongst so many other thing,s was just so much simpler then.

    I applaud any teachers who can, and make the effort to, identify, nurture and encourage a child’s natural abilities and strengths. That’s what education *should* be about. Educatin should *not* be about which schoolis are the best based on how many high-performing students they produce. Schools should *not* be a factory production line of people towing the status quo line. People who have superior talents can usually bypass all of that, but what about the rest of us?

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  2. Tracy Cooper-Posey

    On the other hand, I eschewed the commerce stream in high school and completed Year 12, with an academic standing of 92 overall…and *didn’t* go to university (despite being offered a place). Why? Lots of reasons. My point, though, is that in my long “career” of day jobs, I struggled to find a job that a) paid well and b) offered interesting work, because all I was qualified for was administrative support — possibly the most invisible and undervalued work in the world.

    Qualification inflation is rampant. I was told when I left high school that I could still get a good job without the degree because equivalent experience and a track record were good substitutes. They’re not anymore. Because job applications are handled by computers these days, if you don’t check off the “I have a degree” box, you don’t get the chance to convince a reasoning human that they should give you a try anyway.

    So even a second-rate degree from a former technical institute has its uses.

    (Although now I don’t have to worry about any of that, as I’m writing full time. Yay!)

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