Dumbing-down tertiary education

A university education was once – and for a very long time – regarded as a true mark of distinction. It signified that one was, not to put too fine a point on it, intellectually superior and disciplined with overtones of refinement. How things have changed!

To prove the point, how many graduates these days readily remind us of those attributes? Not many, most would have to confess. And as that reality becomes ever more apparent, the prestige of a university education is washed away like footprints on a seashore.

This follows the great levelling that came out of the 1960s and 70s where young baby boomers demanded equality. Like so many of the ‘reforms’ demanded by my generation it was predicated on a false premise: most of us were not committed to creating a utopia so much as getting our hands on what those more privileged were accustomed to taking for granted. It was, if you like, the politics of envy writ large.

In the ensuing years it became a popular cause to advocate the availability of tertiary education for anyone who wanted it. No longer just for the privileged and powerful, it was pledged to be the province of the aspirationals. In the Australian context, left-of-centre governments saw it as a perfect foil to minimise perceived class barriers.

Of course, all good things come at a price and the level of federal funding allocated to tertiary education is now of staggering proportions.

To be fair, great good has come of this approach. The resulting stimulus to research and innovation has yielded a good measure of prosperity for the nation. And the principle of equality of opportunity can hardly be denied.

Yet, a question remains: have we gone too far down the path of equality for all? Recent research indicates that, in regional areas, just about anyone who applies for a university place gets one. Prima facie that should be a good thing, even a great thing. But what are the consequences of lowering admission standards so far that students who may not be sufficiently gifted academically or intellectually are willingly thrust into the sausage machine?

There is an inevitable strain on lecturers and tutors as they struggle to cope with very divergent competency levels among their students. The true pursuit of excellence must, to some significant extent, be squandered in the process of trying to cater for widely differing levels of ability

And it must be recognised that a significant proportion of those admitted under today’s relaxed entry standards lack the same degree of motivation and commitment as those who truly yearn to hone their critical faculties.

A glimpse into this disparity can be seen in figures which show that just under 99% of applicants to six regional universities were offered a place but only 72% accepted the chance. The nation’s elite universities offer places to fewer than 70% of applicants. I don’t know what percentage of those accepted their offer but it is hard to imagine many turned their backs on the opportunity.

If for no other reason, the massive allocation of funding to higher education – that we all subsidise – dictates that a very scrupulous cost-benefit analysis be undertaken to ensure the nation is benefiting from this new approach to universities. There should now be ample evidence available of graduates’ experience to make determinations about the extent to which they have been advantaged or otherwise by their education.

This is not a topic which should be left to those who administer academe. It affects us all.

Acknowledgement: Julie Hare and John Ross, The Australian.