They’ve become the forgotten generation. Or maybe just ignored.
It may have gone largely unnoticed, but the Federal Budget, handed down last week as the precursor to an election campaign, neatly included yet another tax tweak to the superannuation system that will allow those in retirement, particularly the wealthy, to stash away just a little more loot, to be subsidised naturally by the next generation.
Missing from the same lengthy plan for our future, however, was anything that might help shift the focus of our tertiary education system from a dollar-driven export industry back towards its original intention: institutions for higher learning to equip Australians for the future.
The university sector wasn’t entirely ignored last week. Buried in the tome was a commitment to invest $93.7 million in the university sector over four years for students attending regional universities or vocational education training facilities.
Just a few months ago, however, in the mid-year budget update, a further $328.5 million over four years was ripped out of research funding for universities, which included a freeze on PhD scholarships.
On paper, it sounds like an unmitigated success story. Our education system is now our third-largest export industry, behind iron ore and coal.
Last year, more than half a million foreign students — 548,000 to be exact — clamoured for a spot at our universities. A further 220,000 attend other vocational education institutions.
They’re willing to pay for the privilege. All up, foreign students spent $32 billion in fees, a more than 10 per cent increase on the previous year.
Should that trend continue, Australia will overtake the United Kingdom as the second most popular destination for international students, possibly even this year.
Almost a third of these students come from China, while India and Malaysia come in a distant second and third.
The rapid growth of Australia as a centre for global learning, however, has not been without cost.
There are accusations among academics that in the race to attract more foreign students, teaching standards have slipped, with lecturers under pressure to pass students, even those with poor language skills who clearly can’t grasp the subject material.
Diligent educators who fail too many students run the risk themselves of being considered failures who quickly are moved on.
In addition, many foreign students enrol here as a soft way to emigrate, swelling the number of local undergraduates competing for jobs and depressing wages, initially in service industries while studying for degrees and later in their professions.
A pathway to wealth or debt?
A degree no longer is an automatic gateway to a career. While you’re still more likely to get a job if you have one, there’s no guarantee it will be in your chosen field or even in a professional occupation.
A decade ago, around 85 per cent of new graduates had found a job within four months of leaving university. According to the most recent survey, that’s now dropped to about 73 per cent.
Then there’s the issue of full-time versus part-time work. Of those with a job, more than 32 per cent of men and a disturbing 41 per cent of women were engaged as part-timers.
Consider, too, that for our young full-time work isn’t what it once was. Nowadays, the norm is for our highly educated youth to be on an endless series of short-term contracts with little or no security.
While the survey paints a generally rosy picture about the benefits of higher education, it crucially does not incorporate the cost of a degree — and the associated debt — to compare with incomes. Are degrees really worth it?
Take psychology graduates. Only 60 per cent find employment within four months of graduation. Even if they could land a job in their chosen field, they could expect to be paid $57,600 but be saddled with a debt of close to $30,000.
The sad truth is that vast numbers of young Australians are graduating with degrees in fields such as law, journalism and psychology, and there are nowhere near enough jobs to soak up the supply. Would-be barristers instead become baristas.
A little over a year ago, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull warned young Australians that it would be wise to shun his own chosen academic path, law.
“I’m a lawyer. If you want to be a lawyer, you’ve got to do a law degree, full stop, but a lot of kids do law as though it’s some sort of interesting background qualification and it’s not,” he told Canberra radio station 2CC.
Our universities are churning out 15,000 law graduates each year. Nationally, there are only 66,000 registered solicitors. Try breaking into that field, even with an outstanding academic record.
But still, our universities offer the places and take the students, knowing full well there are no jobs. Then there are the huge numbers that drop out along the way, international students included, owing exorbitant debts with nothing to show for it.
Who pays, user or abuser?
While education as an industry has been a work in progress for more than 50 years, it really took off after 2009 when then education minister Julia Gillard announced two major policy shifts.
The first was to remove enrolment caps at public universities, to allow them to enrol as many students as they liked. And the second was to give vocational education students access to the government assisted loan program.
That second shift is now almost universally regarded as a disaster, a move that encouraged unscrupulous players to entice youngsters into high-paying courses, many of whom had no chance of passing, causing an enormous blow-out in costs.
It could be argued a similar if less overt trend is occurring in our higher learning centres, focussed as they are on attracting as many students as possible, simply for the revenue.
But the plans for global education domination may not quite go according to plan. In order to attract foreign students, institutions need to rank highly on the global league tables.
Not surprisingly, it is the big-name institutions such as UNSW, Melbourne University, Sydney University, RMIT and Monash that dominate the field and therefore attract the foreign students, leaving many regional campuses struggling.
But there’s a catch for the majors, many of which find themselves in a bind.
The best way to maintain global rankings is to turn out groundbreaking research. That, however, is under attack from continued federal cuts to research, undermining the very strategy of promoting higher education as an export industry.
Perhaps we’ve finally achieved what many have long argued for: a highly educated and flexible emerging workforce, willing to be sacked, up stumps and relocate at a moment’s notice.
But the combination of massive education debt, little or no prospect of working in your chosen field, minimal job security and depressed wages doesn’t augur well for our future.
That’s particularly so for those who expect young people to pick up the tab for their retirement.