Who ultimately pays for university daze?

This column's about the downside of universities, so I should probably begin by admitting I've spent many happy years attending these institutions. During this period I've learned a great deal, although it's probably also important to note I'm sure my professors believed I should have learnt more. 

My standpoint is, however, that I'm very pro education. That, of course, is not nearly the same thing as being pro university. 

The government claims higher education plays “a critical role in fuelling innovation, driving productivity and giving students the skills they need for future success”. It's problematic to work out how much anyone may have benefited from studying, because it's not possible to run counter-factual comparisons. Nevertheless, ask yourself to what extent do you attribute your own productivity and success to university and how much would have occurred anyway? 

The reality is education stopped being something intrinsically wonderful the moment it became an industry. And today it's a very big industry. That's why it deserves some examination to see how much it's serving itself. 

Let's begin with the contradictions. Take accounting. There's significant demand for graduates and most local graduates have little difficulty finding work, which is good. Indeed, we're still importing up to 500 accountants a quarter to fill the supposedly emerging gaps in this occupation. Meanwhile, there's a growing number of foreign students, possessing Australian degrees, who are unable to find even entry-level jobs in the industry. The profession believes the training is so dodgy we still need to recruit accountants from overseas. Why?

Then there's oversupply, and journalism's got to be the poster child here. When I was employed by the ABC, only one of five cadet journalists possessed a degree in journalism. Increasing demand has seen journalism degrees proliferating at the same moment that employment prospects are collapsing. Why are so many courses being provided?

Then there's the extra burden placed on those most unable to bear it. Having a degree is becoming the prerequisite to even getting a look-in at a job interview, but the problem is there isn't enough work to go round – certainly not well-paid work. 

Education Minister Simon Birmingham has managed to bring some terrific reforms to the secondary sector. It's a good moment for him to turn his attention to universities.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.

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