We can quibble over details, but it would be fair to say the industrial-scale expansion of higher education has failed to deliver the promised cleverer country.
Higher education on demand — Julia Gillard’s doubtful legacy — undoubtedly has drummed up customers. Domestic enrolments at universities have increased by a quarter from 770,000 in 2008 to much more than a million last year.
Whether the experience delivers value for money, for students or the taxpayer who pays something like half the cost, is another question.
In the technocratic doublespeak that took hold during this dismal period, the government was not spending money on education; it was investment in human capital. An investment, however, implies an expected return. Like so many of the half-cooked reforms of that era, the benefits are simply assumed with no thought to how we may measure them.
Re-reading the advice from Denise Bradley’s expert panel presented to Gillard in 2008, one is struck by the cursory explanation as to why the higher education sector needed to be any bigger than it was.
Nobody would argue that it should be better, since excellence matters in a competitive world. What Bradley failed to explain was the benefits of putting more students through a system already under strain. Universities, for all their pretensions, are like buses: when you cram more passengers on board, the service unavoidably gets worse.
The student-to-staff ratio in higher education rose from about 18:1 in 2001 to almost 21:1 in 2013. More students are failing to complete their courses. Fifty-five per cent of undergraduates who enrolled in 2011 had failed to graduate four years later, up from 53 per cent for the 2005 cohort. Even after six years, more than half enrolled students at some universities have no qualification to show for it.
A recent series of Menzies Research Centre focus groups found disenchantment with higher education is widespread among employers, parents and students. The idea that a university could provide an education, as opposed to mere credentials, is fading fast.
Bradley accepted the conventional wisdom, as experts are obliged to do. Developed nations must make the transition to something called a “knowledge economy”. An “international consensus” holds that “the reach, quality and performance” of higher education determines a nation’s economic and social destiny.
Australia is “losing ground”, claims Bradley. We could once boast the seventh highest proportion of university graduates in the 25-34 age group. Now we’ve slipped to ninth.
So fearful have we become of OECD rankings that it takes courage to stand up and say: “So what?” Just because other countries are putting quantity before quality, should we?
Perhaps the academies could learn from the 19th-century wool trade. Let others provide the fibre for army blankets; Australia’s fine merino is destined for Savile Row.
Modelling commissioned by the Bradley review predicted a cumulative shortfall of 280,074 graduates by this year. We can safely assume that any forecast so precise is bound to be wrong, and it was. Starting salaries for graduates consistently have fallen in the past decade compared with the average wage, suggesting too many applicants are chasing too few jobs.
Confusing models with reality is a symptom of a society that has become intellectually top heavy, in which abstract solutions are applied to practical problems.
That’s the conclusion of Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer in a provocative book challenging the assumption that a successful modern economy requires mass higher education.
Universities themselves have become sinkholes of stupidity; “pointless rebranding exercises, ritualistic box-ticking, misguided attempts at visionary leadership, (and) thoughtless pursuit of rankings”, they write in The Stupidity Paradox. Worthless bureaucratic exercises detract from the university’s core purpose: to educate students and extend the frontiers of knowledge. They suggest that for all the talk of a knowledge economy, low-level service jobs still dominate. “For every well-paid programmer working at a ﬁrm like Microsoft, there are three people ﬂipping burgers at a restaurant like McDonald’s.”
Instead of a knowledge economy, we have seen an explosion of “bullshit jobs”, to borrow a term coined by anthropologist David Graeber.
Knowledge workers know it. A recent British survey found that 37 per cent of those employees thought their job made no meaningful contribution to the world.
A telltale sign of a bullshit job is a shift of focus from substance to image. Branding, marketing and public relations — often internally focused — takes on more significance than the core product.
“Employees keep learning how great their employer is through employee branding initiatives, corporate culture programs and corporate social responsibility projects,” write Alvesson and Spicer. “Baseless ideas can help organisations and the individuals working in them to look and feel good … individuals who resisted going on the ethical training course were seen as being deviants who did not comply with the new more righteous tone at the bank.”
Many self-proclaimed “knowledge-intensive” organisations are in fact engines of stupidity. “Idiotic ideas and practices are accepted as quite sane.”
The claim that modern organisations actively cultivate functional stupidity to sidestep troublesome questions and give their staff a sense of order may be a step too far for some.
Yet the proliferation of public policy bungles in Australia in the past decade supports their claim that functional stupidity is pervasive in modern organisations. Public servants are encouraged not to think too much about possible problematic consequences and to focus on simply delivering.
If the knowledge nation theory held good, workplaces should be getting cleverer.
In 1996, when John Howard came to power, a mere 16 per cent of the Australians aged between 25 and 34 could boast a university qualification. Today it is 37 per cent and rising.
Yet the rate of productive growth has slowed even as the size of the graduate workforce has grown.
Arguably the most tangible legacy of the so-called knowledge class is a growing deadweight of bureaucracy that serves to stifle risk-taking and increase the non-productive tasks of compliance.
It goes without saying that Australia needs to nurture the practical intelligence that has been its hallmark for the past 200 years. But we’d be mugs to leave it all to the universities.