One-dimensional career advice ‘morally unfair’

‘Fantasy rhetoric’ that university leads to the ‘good life’ leaves students feeling ‘betrayed’, Australian study finds

December 19, 2023
Source: istock

The “cruel optimism” of career advisers who consider university “the only post-school pathway worth pursuing” risks consigning Australian teenagers to the “precariat” that has already absorbed many of their lecturers and tutors, research suggests.

A study of young Australians has found that “valorisation” of university as a ticket to the “good life” leaves many “stuck in the graduate waiting room…feeling disillusioned and betrayed by society”.

The study, by academics at the University of Newcastle’s School of Education, found that career advice in schools often amounted to little more than giving students the university course guidebook or predicting their likely tertiary admission scores.

The “singular piece of advice” to “just go to uni” left many students later feeling “outright frustration” over the one-dimensional guidance they claimed to have received.

Reporting the study in the journal Educational Review, the researchers cite 2022 survey findings that 83 per cent of young Australians aspire to university. “Clearly, 83 per cent of young people will not find post-university employment in degree-related occupations,” the authors observe. “The percentage of roles classified as professional in the Australian labour force remains at less than 20 per cent.”

The researchers tracked 22 mostly disadvantaged former subjects of an earlier longitudinal study, who had completed school between one and five years previously. All but six had since started university studies, with just three pursuing vocational education and training (VET).

Many of the university students now regretted their choices, having diverged from their original studies amid bouts of mental illness and, in at least one case, attempted suicide.

The “fantasy rhetoric” around higher education is “morally unfair” when credential inflation often leaves young degree holders struggling to find suitable work, the authors suggest. “School students should be offered impartial information about their post-school options and…the pathways that will best suit their passions and interests. University is continually positioned as an ‘object of desire’ within society and schools but, increasingly, not able to deliver on its promise.”

Co-author Kristina Sincock said a “blanket expectation” about attending university was putting pressure on young people who might be more suited to vocational education or “just going straight into work”. Many of the subjects had ultimately persisted with higher education, but often in different fields from their initial enrolments.

“They…wasted a year and then they changed courses. They were getting themselves further into debt for the sake of going to uni, because that’s what you do. They were always told: ‘Uni’s the best, everything else is not quite good enough. If you can’t get into uni you’re not failing, but you’re not doing the best that you possibly could and you’re not setting yourself up for the best possible future.’

“If there was proper funding for career education, rather than teachers scrambling around trying to do it in their spare hour…those kids might be able to go more directly into something that’s right for them, rather than wasting all this time fishing around and getting in debt.”

The paper says fields where workers are “urgently required”, such as construction and hospitality, are derided as “not good enough”.

“Young people and their communities are overlooking fulfilling and potentially lucrative career options by eschewing vocational education,” the paper says. “The economic gain produced through VET-related careers is often trumped by perceptions of symbolic value.”

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