The Tertiary Trap

In the USA today there are around this time of year, hundreds of thousands of college graduates tossing aside the cape and making a frisbee out of the mortar board and running into the sunset, clutching their testamur as they race off to the dream career waiting for them after a short, well deserved break. According to the US Census Bureau’s figures for 2009, in that year there were 82,109 graduates in ‘communication, journalism and related fields’. 21,158 did ‘foreign languages, literatures and linguistics’ and 47,096 Liberal Arts, general studies and humanities majors with a whopping 168,500 taking ‘social sciences and history’. That is a total of 318,863 out of a total of 1,601,368 Bachelor’s Degrees awarded by accredited institutions that year. I believe there are more this year as the numbers have gone up every year since 1980 when the chart I refer to began.

I wonder if all of those 1.6 million graduates have jobs? I know many would go on to masters and doctorates and yet the rest have to compete with the 787,325 Associate Degree holders graduating that year, more than half of them women but I’m not counting the half a million who graduated with a lower than Associate Degree qualification. At the same time, there were 656,784 masters graduates in all disciplines and 67,716 doctoral degrees awarded. Eight thousand of these masters and doctorates were awarded to communications and journalism majors, yet since that year we have seen hundreds of major newspapers and thousands of smaller ones close down in the USA. So if there were say 90,000 communications and journalism graduates at all levels hitting the bricks every year since then, by this time we have 360,000 new writers with shiny degrees to add to the however many millions already out there and this is the USA alone.

90,000 graduates who pay at least $14,000 for their degrees whether public or private, means $1,260,000,000 or $1.2 Billion from communications and journalism majors alone! Now add the rest up and 1.6 million Americans undergoing tertiary education at an average of $14,000 a pop means this is a $23 Billion a year business! As the man said, ‘a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money!’ So it is no wonder the accredited institutions, who pay a lot of money for the Big Tick, are not happy about those they label ‘Diploma Mills’ and I can appreciate that. Having worked hard and still owing $23K for my own education I value the qualifications I have and feel I have earned them. But have they gotten me a job? Not on their own and I doubt a degree ever has. They do help though and for me my degree and other qualification have helped me leverage what I know and can do and could do before I ever enrolled at my first university, into some income producing courses. Yet there is the rub. I could already do what I do now before I started my Master of Arts in Writing with Swinburne University of Technology. I learned a considerable amount from doing the course and that includes about course construction and structured learning but I am the first to admit I could still be doing ok without it.

In fact I have gained a lot from each and every tertiary course I have undertaken so I am not on the side of those places that grant degrees for the payment of a fee. Mostly because they are rip offs. They charge hundreds, even thousands of dollars and they are not even legally registered as a degree granting body, anywhere. Forget accreditation, that varies from country to country no matter which university you study with. I know Indian friends who have genuine degrees from universities in India that are not considered worth giving an academic nod to by the accreditation body here in New South Wales, the Board of Studies. Or they have to pay huge fees to have their degrees checked and approved. How fair is that? I’m not talking medical qualifications where lives are on the line and of course we need to ensure doctors are qualified and yes, we know some countries do have lower standards and such. No, I am talking accountants and geologists and management professionals, working in unskilled jobs because that is all they can get, that is the real migrant experience here for too many. Their degrees bump them up the immigration queue and accrue more points but then when they arrive, the degrees are worthless in real terms.

Speaking of the USA once more, it is little wonder that the establishment likes to keep a tight rein on the whole tertiary education industry and make no mistake, it is an industry. A  Trillion dollar industry when you include outstanding student loans. From what I can make of the stats, there were some 3 million high school drop outs in 2009 and some ten million enrolled in total meaning 7 million graduated. Of them, only about 20% are going to graduate from college. So where are they all going to work given the state of the economy? Maybe it’s a good thing the US Military needs lots of high school graduates and even drop outs to send to Afghanistan. They can come back and go to college on the famous G.I. Bill but then what? We have more tertiary qualified people looking for work. not all of them can become teachers.

Another question is whether tertiary education really trains people for real life. In some fields, yes, very much so. In others, perhaps not. I read somewhere that the newspapers and media are written at a year 9 level, say 15-16 year olds, to appeal to the majority of the population. Talk about dumbing down but it is true. If the newspapers and tv shows were written even at HSC (high school graduate) level a lot of people would not be able to keep up and would lose interest and change channels. Go up a notch to a graduate’s level of English usage and there would be few people paying any kind of attention, even graduates. So why bother learning beyond Year 9?

In many ways the education system is there merely to serve itself. Teachers are people who have been at school since Kindergarten, perhaps before that in pre-school. So from 4 or 5 until 18 they are at school. Then they enter university and when they graduate they go into teaching and remain in the cloistered environment of educational institutions for the rest of their working lives. They retire at 65 and have some six decades of institutionalism to show for it. This view appeals to many but personally I think many, if not most teachers, are very aware of real life outside the school grounds. A lot of teachers get in front of a class after a life of other jobs and bring that knowledge and experience with them. But do we teach our kids the right stuff? Well, that is another thing altogether. For now, why not ponder what you’ve read so far. Then discuss… in 200 words.. or less.


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