Learning for Life should be for everyone
‘In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists.’ – Eric Hoffer
The United Nations sees education as a fundamental human right because it leads to individual empowerment and greater opportunity for the individual. Education advances countries and economies also. In advanced countries like Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan, Singapore, United States and United Kingdom, higher education is skewed towards the more well to do. The students of the best universities tend to come from middle class to upper class backgrounds, with educated parents. They may have gone to private schooling or received private tuition in high school to boost their chances of entry into a leading university. Students seek value for money and sometimes a degree is too academic or not likely to find them employment in their chosen field. In the worst cases colleges are shut down for failing accreditation standards and students lose their money.
The Singaporean Minister for Education, Minister Heng Swee Keat, echoes the words of Sir John Monash in a parliamentary speech dated 6 March 2015, where he discusses how Singapore built up its education system and in doing so grew its economy. He argues against a ‘study book’ culture, namely where success is largely measured by academic grades. He goes on to emphasise the importance of holistic self-directed learning and soft skills like: creativity, inventiveness, adaptability, socio-emotional skills, and cultural and global awareness. Minister Heng Swee Keat cautions against churning out students who excel in examinations, but are ill-equipped to take on jobs of the future, nor find fulfilment in what they do. He refers to holistic learning for life as mastery learning and emphasizes the need for mastery learning in every field.
Universities Australia considers that financial constraints are a real barrier to entry into higher education. They suggest measures including reducing the age of qualification for the student allowance from 25 to 18. Universities Australia does not support fee deregulation since the New Education Minister Simon Birmingham became Minister. (ABC, Oct 2015). Earlier Universities Australia had supported fee deregulation on the basis that it was the only way for universities to absorb a 20% cut in funding.
In writing this article a range of people were interviewed from a variety of different backgrounds, ages and even countries (although mainly people living in Australia) (the “participants”). When participants collectively are referred to, it refers to the overall view of the participants from the survey. The focus of this article is Australia with reference to other jurisdictions to provide contrast. Some of the participants had a university degree/s and some did not. Some were white collar workers and some were blue collar workers. Universities Australia suggests that the majority of parents of all backgrounds and races aspire for their children to do well in school and then undertake tertiary education. In conducting the rather than asking do you want to or want your children to attend university, as that would be a loaded question in support of tertiary education, the following were asked:
1. What do you understand is the meaning of the phrase “Learning for Life” in one or two sentences?
2. Name two or three life skills and how you acquired them? (for example: at school; university; at work; online learning; reading; etc.)
3. What has been your greatest learning challenge in life and how did you overcome it?
4. What plans do you have for your future learning?
Out of everyone interviewed no one expressed a view that education is not important. Of those that were less educated and did not go to TAFE (college) or university, they hoped that their children would. There was a strong view that tertiary education is not as practical as it should be and that many of life skills were learnt the hard way, namely by making mistakes or on the job. The greatest challenges around learning were affordability, time constraints, and remoteness for some, perceived racial or cultural barriers and in some cases poor quality of education for the fees paid. Many persons interviewed expressed a difficulty in learning to deal with difficult people (e.g. difficult boss, difficult colleague, other party in a negotiation). That view was expressed even by people that had studied courses around business management, law and negotiation. This suggests that in relation to education schools, colleges and universities and Governments can only do the best they can in terms of adequate funding and educational standards. Just as a Government cannot legislate manners, some parts of life cannot be taught but only learnt. Although there was some fatalism around that point by the interview respondents, there was a clear consensus amongst participants that whilst life cannot me mapped, education can make the pathway less challenging. The reason that is so is that a good education, especially tertiary education, teaches people life skills at times indirectly or inadvertently, as part of core studies such as a Bachelor of Business or a Master of Psychology. The participants also thought that tertiary education should provide more holistic learning. An examination of the websites of the big four accounting firms such as PWC shows that big employers are seeking more holistic skills from graduates that go beyond the very technical skills that are typically taught at colleges and universities.
For example, Alessandra DeSouza, 37, lawyer and teacher in Brazil, Alessandra DeSouza, 37, lawyer and teacher in Brazil, stated that Learning for Life includes learning skills such as standing up for yourself and not giving up. She has learned skills such as perseverance and tolerance, as well as how to study and work efficiently and be organized. Nathaniel Beaumont, 26, child care worker and student in Melbourne, Australia, felt that there is too much attention on tertiary education and there should be more focus on learning at ages 0 to 5 when most learning in life occurs. Hong-Chuan, 65, retired lawyer and accountant from Malaysia who migrated to Australia at age 20, said that for him the learning at university was not difficult, but it was difficult learning in an environment where there was still clear racism towards Asian students. If you were to venture to the library at Swinburne University you would see perhaps 40% Indians, 40% Chinese, 5% white and 5% other and the racism mentioned by Hong-Chuan is not evident.
It is fair to say that the standard of learning is indeed very high overall, at least in Australia. All of the top 8 universities in Australia are in the world’s top 200, most of them in the top 100. The University of Melbourne for example has the 8th best law school in the world. Thirty or forty years ago university was for very few people, whereas today if you take law in Australia there are 12,000 law students graduating each year into a pool of only 60,000 practising lawyers in Australia. It is now referred to as the new arts degree, suggesting the investment will not translate to a higher paying job as a result of the qualification. (Sydney Morning Herald, Feb 2014) Based on my survey, there was certainly evidence of persons with Master’s Degree/s and even a PhD not reaping the financial rewards of expensive further study. PhD’s are often free but are very time consuming. A Master’s Degree, whilst covered by HECS-HELP is more expensive than an undergraduate degree as the fees have been deregulated (something the Government is trying to do with undergraduate degrees). It is interesting to note the number of undergraduate degrees being made a postgraduate degree. One only needs to look at the University of Melbourne or the University of Western Australia for examples of this.
There was a view from some of those interviewed that the job market in Australia is tight and they feel or felt compelled to undertake undergraduate and even postgraduate studies just to find a basic job these days. There was a feeling amongst those surveyed that ideally they would like to study something they enjoy but are unwilling to do that if there is not a reasonable return on investment. Those from Australia who were surveyed definitely did not consider higher education in Australia to be free any more. When HECS first came in, some of the older participants considered HECS to be a small cost. The feeling of the participants now is that HECS-HELP is a very real and significant cost that takes potentially decades to pay off and that proposed changes by the Government (which are currently on the backburner until we see what the new Education Minister and Prime Minister decide to put forward to Cabinet and the Parliament) will make education even less affordable. The Business Insider reported in November of 2015 that paying for an MBA in the USA no longer made economic sense. They determined that the economic benefit was a mere $12,000 US additional salary per year and concluded that investing the $100,000 that an MBA costs at a reputable university in the US into property, shares or business, would reap much greater financial rewards.
Some were positive about online study because it gave them flexibility when they were working full time or even working overseas, but it was felt that if you are going to have to pay $25,000 – $35,000 plus, you might as well be studying on campus so that you receive immediate face to face attention from lecturers and tutors and also classmates. One participant, Jurkin, 25, former engineer and entrepreneur from Africa/Australia and now living in Canada, stated the view that reading, watching documentaries, watching YouTube, receiving mentoring, learning from others, on the job training and travel is much cheaper than a university degree in Australia.
It is well known that in Australia one’s year 12 average is almost the definitive determinant for college and university entry, whereas in the USA it is the opposite with college and university entrance tests/exams being paramount. Either way persons from lower socio-economic (low SES) groups and certain racial groups (Indigenous in Australia and blacks/Hispanics in the USA) are underrepresented in colleges and university. The same applies in the UK and indeed Europe. (OECD data) In the USA there are more colleges that 7-11s in some places yet the top universities are filled with students from higher socio-economic backgrounds that are mainly white or Asian. Note that without President Lyndon Johnson’s affirmative action legislation the situation would be worse for minorities. One might say that the USA has a two tiered system of higher education much like its health system (where health expenditure is highest of any country and the best health advancements often derive from the USA). (Forbes, 2014)
It seems to be a consistent thing that poor outcomes in high school can lead to worse opportunities at college and university. (Baum and Ma 2007) It is said that a low achieving student from a higher socio-economic background will do as well as a high achieving low SES student. (Carnevale and Rose 2003: 32-33). In Canada over 75% of college or university students come from middle and upper class backgrounds. (Berger et al. 2007, citing Bergeron et al., 2004) It is said that this arises because of parental influence and high school quality. It is said that the best measure of academic ability for tertiary study is prior tertiary study. (Birch & Miller, 2005a) In recognition of this universities like Victoria University and Monash University are making entry requirements comparatively easy for some courses (e.g. some courses at VU have an entry percentile of just 40%) to give potentially disadvantaged students to prove themselves at university. This can be contrasted with the University of Western Australia (in response to Senate Estimates on Higher Education reform) which supports the Government position of deregulating fees and allowing degrees for undergraduate courses to average $50,000. This is justified on the basis that overall funding from Government has been declining over the years and now Australia is only 25 out of 30 OECD countries in terms of university funding. The University of Western Australia supports HECS style funding for TAFE to open up competition and raise standards (which are high but gradually falling against competition from leading Asian universities). Further, Uni of WA says that the investment in education by Government should be proportional to the public benefit.
Value for money is the most important criterion for government and non-government spending. There are times when students fork out tens of thousands of dollars and end up at a dodgy college that provides sub-standard education and sometimes they even close down leaving students stranded mid-way through their course. The Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority’s (VRQA) states that “While many providers are doing the right thing, the review has found there remain unscrupulous operators who flout regulatory and contract conditions.” THE VRQA will implement 19 reforms to combat this. They include:
· RTOs would need to demonstrate a proven track record of delivering quality training and assessment before being eligible for a VTG contract.
· Implement a probationary period/contract for RTOs that have not previously held a VTG contract, with a minimum period of 12 months.
· Training providers contracted under the VTG should, going forward, be prohibited from credentialing their own trainers and assessors with the Certificate IV in Training and Assessment.
· Explicitly state in the contract that RTOs are expected to deliver a volume of training in line with recommendations in the AQF and/or Training Package.
· Compliance audits will be supplemented by quality audits, which may be triggered at compliance audit for further investigative purposes.
· Quality assurance will aim to improve both educational process and outcomes (quality of graduates and qualifications). Quality audits will evaluate an RTO’s training and assessment practices.
· Inform consumer choice by making publicly available consistent, accessible and comparable performance information about RTOs including performance against quality indicators, employment outcomes, completion rates, consumer satisfaction results and completed and agreed audit results.
· In the absence of a national VET complaints system, establish a body responsible for ensuring the resolution of student complaints.
Learning for Life should be for everyone and not just the privileged. (The Guardian 2010) The evidence shows that it is the more privileged in society that are attending the best universities, and indeed universities/good colleges in general. The evidence suggests that a good start in life is determinative of one’s post school future in many cases, as educated parents instill strong educational values to their children and the cycle of privilege continues. Governments have intervened in some ways such as entry requirements that are not solely based on a numeric score. In places like the USA there is affirmative action (although in many State’s its legal validity has been challenged). There is a constant battle between funding by government, contribution by students and quality of education by the educational institutions. There are many that would argue students should not be left in poverty by Government whilst studying (such as the Council for Social Services). Based on the views of the participants, everyone seeks the same outcome though which is high standard, low cost, world standard education that is attainable by everyone. How to achieve that is an ongoing discussion as evidenced by the shelving of former Minister for Education Christopher Pyne’s higher education reform policy to put in place something more palatable to the electorate already tired of rising fees and universities being squeezed (Universities Australia) (thus affecting quality of education to a point).