As published in The Daily Telegraph, June 12, 2019 6:00pm
The dilemma of whether their child should pursue a university degree is front of mind for many Sydney parents with HSC mock exams on the horizon and career anxiety turning up a notch.
But it’s not just the exorbitant cost involved.
I’m convinced that uni education should now come with a warning — don’t expect your time here to prepare you for life. Or a job.
There’s no doubt our halls of higher learning have suffered some serious reputational damage, must of it self-inflicted.
Only last week this newspaper revealed that some Sydney Uni students are campaigning to tear down a statue of William Wentworth — a pioneer of this great city who came from convict stock — because he is a “known racist”.
Wednesday night, on Sky News, Sydney University student Will Jeffries explained how “equity officers’ were crucifying debate in the classroom to the point where students had to state their pronouns (I’m she or her for the record) before stating their arguments.
When I think of my 15-year-old son’s education going forward, I often recall his first day of school.
Dressed in scratchy poly-cotton uniform and top-heavy with a backpack, he stood before me so excited that my heart swelled as I saw his educational future stretching out before him as a glorious highway of opportunity.
Just think what they’ll be when they grow up, you daydream while cutting another cheese and Vegemite sandwich.
A few scraped knees, maths tests and swimming carnivals later and like me, you now identify as a high school parent.
And that’s when the fear sets in. After HSC, what’s next?
A university degree, yes that’s it. The marker of achievement. Well done, instant and continual employment to follow. Right? Not so fast.
Lately, my fellow parents and I are having conversations of a different vein with our teenagers, our sons to be specific.
They are raising with us — rather than us with them — the issue of employability and relevance with a BA or some such after their name.
Or as my son asks: how do you know that the debt acquired and time spent at university will get you a job?
A valid point requiring a deep-rooted re think of how we used to worship the concept of university education.
Perhaps it’s time for an overhaul so our kids are incentivised also consider vocational education — plumbing, electrician or building — before tackling the traditional white collar degree with an eye towards a profession like law, medicine, or banking.
We are churning out kids from a system driven by student demand.
Degree ticked off, the belief is they will be able to secure roles in their chosen field. Tertiary education should meet the needs of industry rather than training as many students as possible on a conveyor belt to career oblivion.
But that is not happening, of course.
The Federal Government surveyed more than 120,000 university graduates last year. Pharmacy (97.2 per cent) and medicine (94.9 per cent) degrees had the best job prospects. They are the exception.
Creative arts graduates were at the bottom with only 52.2 per cent full-time employment in the short term.
Anecdotally, I’m being told people involved in hiring panels are saying they don’t actually want to talk to these uni kids any more. “The quality is miserable, I’d rather someone from the real world that hasn’t gone through all that nonsense.”
Sobering, isn’t it?
Yet Gary Workman, Executive Director of Apprentice Employment Network which employs over 30,000 apprentices and trainees says that there is still a stigma attached to trade.
Kids in year 9 and 10 who are ‘pushed’ towards plumbing, carpentry, and the like are made to feel they are not smart enough despite 95 per cent of trade graduates being hired full time, he says.
However in Europe, and especially Switzerland, from year 9 they do a school based apprenticeship plus traditional subjects so they leave school with practical and academic skills plus a trade qualification. A gift to employers, illustrated by youth unemployment rate of two per cent compared to ours which can be as high as 25 per cent in some areas.
Going to uni does not future proof your kids, no matter their aspirations or yours.
Part of the problem is career advisers who have been to uni themselves, and for whom higher education is the path they are comfortable talking about.
Workman says: “The automotive industry is overlooked by career advisers because we don’t manufacture cars here anymore even though there’s plenty of future-proofed jobs like autonomous cars, such as 3D printing and so on.”
“Parents need to be realistic — focus on what practical skills your kids can learn rather than prestige degrees.”
“Kids are being pushed to university thinking that is the panacea for life after school and aged 23 or 24 wondering why they can’t get a job.”
I have a colleague whose son is planning a uni course in materials science and engineering but at age 17 is savvy enough to recognise the value of getting a trade qualification — in this case welding.
His father says that coming from a family of middle-class professional degree holders, the idea was initially shocking, until his son explained his logic.
“He said that way he would have money to go to university, and a skill, and understand what he was doing when he went to uni.”
“He said the thing that worried him was friends going to university for arts degrees who won’t necessarily be able to get a job and he just didn’t want to have to have that problem.”
The question for you and me as parents is this: Would you rather your child get a degree that you can brag about and potentially be unemployed or be out actually learning and using a skill that’s going to be in demand so he or she will likely always have a job?
Our children deserve that answer — and in their interest, not ours.