The higher education debate has devolved during the past few months. Instead of finding common ground and solutions that benefit everyone, opponents are instead fighting over the moral high ground in an adult’s version of king of the castle. Disadvantaged and lower socio-economic students are the first to suffer, as emphasis on lower-level qualifications is swept aside in favour of boastful trumpeting and multi-billion dollar post-dated cheques.
Australia’s position as one of the world’s best places to study, supported by high-ranking universities and ground-breaking research, is being jeopardised as political infighting threatens to torpedo our hard-earned reputation. As is customary during budget and election years, the big talk overshadows the practical function of education – preparing students to enter the workforce.
The start of 2015 has been a roller-coaster for education providers, as governments perform more back-flips than the dolphins at Sea World, and reforms are reformed even before being formed. The beginning of this year has become a boulevard of broken dreams for the Education Minister, starting with the fee deregulation fiasco, morphing into all-out battle to decimate university research, and then taking aim at a raft of cheating scandals. Although the ride has been exciting, the caboose has become loose, and the losers are our young and vulnerable Australians.
Fortunately, not everyone has taken their eye off the ball, and many educators are as determined as ever to help the next generation achieve their potential. Associate Professor Chandra Shah, from Monash University’s Centre for the Economics of Education and Training, is typical of Australian academics who understand that the bigger picture is made up of smaller segments. Shah emphasises a report by the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency that points to the positive outcomes of lower-level qualifications.
“Qualifications at Certificate one and two levels not only provide foundation skills such as literacy and numeracy, but are also important for a range of other reasons…recent policy changes have emphasised higher-level qualifications, but our findings show that lower-level qualifications also deserve attention,” Professor Shah said.
The study confirmed the many benefits of lower-level certificate qualifications, such as providing entry-level career options, broadening study horizons, and acting as a pathway to apprenticeships and tertiary-level study.
Lower-level qualifications remain invaluable for many equity groups, including Indigenous Australians, those with a disability and new arrivals from other linguistic backgrounds. Certificate level qualifications are an ideal starting point toward further education, training and job placement.
We can’t all be ground-breaking academics or award winning scientists, and at a time when youth unemployment is around 20%, it could be time for doing what Australia used to be famous for, and giving everyone a fair go.