From where I sit - The only thing that counts is jobs

October 16, 2008

In Australia, it has never cost so much to go to university. Consequently, students are no longer buying an education; they are buying a commodity they expect will lead to a job so they can pay off their debts.

Meanwhile, the universities seem to have ever less money to splurge on full-time academic staff. (Yet there seems to be ever more to spend on areas such as "procurement". A new full-time position called director, procurement, was created at one university after a year-long review, the official announcement saying in the best of weasel words that "one of the major solutions developed was the development of a strategic sourcing model for procurement". I kid you not.)

But back to the prime income-providers for universities: undergraduate students. Several Australian universities are making radical changes to their bachelors degree programmes.

The University of Western Australia (UWA) will cut its undergraduate courses from more than 70 to just six and will move towards a US-style graduate school model, according to The Australian. The UWA curriculum review task force's final report recommends five bachelors programmes (arts, commerce, design, health, science), with optional fourth-year honours. The sixth programme is the more research-based bachelor of philosophy degree.

Undergraduate courses will also include four units (about a sixth of the degree) from outside the major field, focusing on broader concerns such as globalisation and cultural diversity. Students will also be taught communications, research and community work skills.

Several other universities in Australia are making, or considering, curriculum restructures. Monash University this month unveiled its "passport" curriculum. While this change will mean cutting some courses, it will enhance the university's focus on double degrees, according to The Age, but will not move to a graduate school model as the University of Melbourne has already done.

The Melbourne model has been the source of heated debate, and the changes have angered some.

Just last week, for example, the mother of a first-year student told me that her daughter had opted for arts at Melbourne but was disappointed in the course. "We're paying so much money for her to go because we don't want her to start her working life with a debt, but the course doesn't seem to lead to anything," the mother said. "These days, a degree has to lead to a job."

It is not a new criticism of arts degrees - when I did my BA in the 1980s, engineering and law students would scoff at those of us doing English and ask what job we imagined we would get. We just laughed and told ourselves that we were being educated rather than merely vocationally trained.

Today, the pressure is greater than ever. I was staffing the communications section's desk at Monash University's recent undergraduate open day and the most common question asked by parents and prospective students was: "What job will this lead to?"

In theory, the new curriculum style at UWA and Melbourne sounds good. I'm all for more broadly educated people who specialise later. In practice, though, I am suspicious because everything these days is about providing a service on an ever-tightening budget. I believe that all the lofty talk about new systems being good for tertiary students, research and the country are balderdash. It's all about the money: quickly, someone, try to prove to me that it is not.

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