Socialising ‘job readiness’: who’s higher education really for?

The government’s recently announced overhaul of university funding means that the cost of society and culture, humanities and communications degrees will go up by a staggering 113 per cent, potentially making students pay more than the cost of administering their degree.

The move has been made in the name of ‘job readiness’. Education Minister Dan Tehan said that the government wants to prod students in the direction of teaching, clinical psychology, English, maths, nursing and allied health, languages, agriculture and STEM subjects. ‘We know that the jobs of the future will be in those areas,’ he told the Press Club. Tehan holds an arts degree, and apparently regrets it. ‘I wish that I had done a language,’ he said, without any semblance of irony. ‘It nearly cost me the opportunity of getting a job.’

As critics have pointed out, the policy fails by its own standards. The key areas the government identified will perversely end up with less funding per student. And of course arts degrees aren’t the professional sinkhole Tehan makes out. The bigger issue, however, is Tehan’s premise that the purpose of university is to make someone ‘job ready’. If university degrees should be geared towards developing skills that employers seek, then why don’t they pay for this training themselves?

The rise in higher education enrolments has coincided with an erosion in organisational investment in employees. US research shows large reductions in the hours of on-the-job training and employer-funded training over the nineties and the noughties. In Australia, the ACTU notes that those in insecure work are unlikely to receive much – if any – training: ‘Private investment in human capital development has declined and more and more employers become ‘free-riders’ relying on the state or other employers to train staff.’

In media, cadetships barely even exist anymore. It’s expected that applicants will already know how to do the job and will have accrued sufficient experience not just through their studies but through internships, volunteer activities or other unpaid labour. In other industries, it’s common for graduate applicants to have already undertaken internships, clerkships, work experience, to have professional accreditations, and for their studies to have covered the basics of what they’d be required to do in their job. Jobs that previously required little formal qualifications, such as many administrative roles, attract increasingly qualified job applicants – despite little actual changes in the roles themselves. The numbers of apprenticeships and traineeships declined in 2012, when employers were no longer offered financial incentives to help new people into their profession.

At the same time as this developments took place, employers have been decrying skill shortages. There’s plenty of jobs, apparently, but nobody skilled to fill them. Yet, unemployment rates are higher than job vacancy rates. As management academic Peter Cappelli writes, ‘the real issue is that employers’ expectations – for the skills of new graduates, for what they must invest in training, and for how much they need to pay their employees – have grown increasingly out of step with reality.’ It’s not that students are studying useless subjects, it’s that universities can’t and shouldn’t make each student capable of slipping into a specific, professional role. ‘What employers really want are workers they don’t have to train.’ The costs of what once would have been on-the-job training has been socialised and offloaded to tertiary education institutions, while the benefits of having a ‘job ready’ workforce are privatised. Employers benefit from the training that the taxpayer and the student fund. And they’re still unhappy.

The Coalition’s policy will be unlikely to pre-empt the needs of future employers. Deloitte Access Economics partner and future of work report author David Rumbens advises that ‘the future of work will require much more, and much better, on-the-job learning than Australia has today. Business leaders will have to make active choices, and just buying skills won’t be enough, they will have to adopt an investment frame of mind, and train them.’

Vocational education in the tertiary sector, of course, has a place. Many professions require vast amounts of background knowledge and skill before someone can hope to work alone. But this is the training involved in lifelong learning, of bringing a field forward, of upholding its ethical standards. It’s not to slip into a specific role at a specific company, but to invest in yourself and in a discipline that interests you.

It seems a strange turn of events where, for the privilege of being a potential employee, students are expected to study for at least three years after high school cultivating ‘job readiness’. They are expected to live in shabby rentals, maintain ramen noodle diets and accrue debt at a rate of between $3700 and $14,500 a year – all to study exactly what will make them valuable to a company upon graduation. Their graduate employment will then allow them to pay for their ‘job readiness’ training: five-figure debts in exchange for employment. It’s reminiscent of Jia Tolentino’s image of ‘the ideal chopped-salad customer‘, who ‘needs to eat his $12 salad in 10 minutes because he needs the extra time to keep functioning within the job that allows him to afford a regular $12 salad in the first place.’ All of this spending, all of this time, all of your life, is directed at being employed.

Students expect their academic achievement will get traded up for a job, for money. But ‘employment’ thus conceived brings only the illusion of security. Where companies don’t have to invest in employee skills, and where every graduate has more-or-less the same set of ‘job ready’ skills, each is more disposable. This disposability is reflected in the high levels of both youth and graduate unemployment. Even pre-COVID, according to the Reserve Bank, 30 per cent of new graduates don’t get a full-time job within four months of graduating. There’s always someone else around to take your place. The cost efficiencies of keeping graduates precarious are bonuses for organisational bottom lines too: graduate starting salaries are getting lower relative to average salaries over time, despite the costs of their qualifications going up.

If the point of university is ‘job readiness’, the funding model is perverse and amounts to corporate welfare. But I don’t think ‘job readiness’ is or should be the point. Tertiary education may be hard to justify under a neoliberal framework but has immense value to individuals and society. It’s a conversation between thinkers, critics, theorists, inventors, discoverers, experimentalists through history. It gives you ideas as to how to think, how to ground decisions in knowledge, how to produce new knowledge, how to assess the way things are and offer something better. It’s a wonder, then, with all our degrees, how we got to be on this hamster wheel where we pay our money, our time, our formative education in exchange for the dull illusion of ‘job readiness’.

Erin Stewart

Erin Stewart is a writer based in Canberra. She tweets at @xerinstewart

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  1. Tolentino’s education & access that put her in the position of being quoted in an essay about labour and capital made possible by her family trafficking vulnerable workers. Cycles!

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