Maxwell Newton, “The Failure of Education,”
Australian Penthouse, March 1980, pp. 44-52.
Australia’s universities are bloated with money, intellectually corrupt, and totally unable to prepare kids for today’s world.
There has been a disaster in Australian tertiary education. A torrent of money poured into universities and colleges of advanced education in the past decade has left these institutions bloated with students, wealthy beyond the dreams of their forebears and totally corrupted in their intellectual standards, bewildered and confused about what they are supposed to be doing. Australian universities and Colleges of Advanced Education have been force fed with limitless money. They have grown like some bizarre tropical plant, reaching ever higher and swelling ever larger until they have burst open, spilling their juice and substance on the ground. They are rotten with over-indulgence in expansion and in the wild, greedy, slavering race by their controllers for bigger jobs, more students, more pay. It has been a disgusting spectacle, one which simply underlies again the importance of imposing harsh controls on the use of public money. What is there to show for the great boom of the Seventies on Australian tertiary education?
There is an army of graduates in “liberal arts, business studies and teacher education” who will simply have to be absorbed into the various Public Services, including the State teacher systems.
There is nowhere else for this unshod, tattered army of unemployables to go. Only in the Public Service (including the State teacher system) can these unfortunates be given the sort of salaries they have been led to expect, but which they manifestly do not deserve.
Another regiment of bludgers has been created — this time at fantastic cost.
For at least a decade, the various Governments who have presided over this shambles have had us believe that there is, in Australia, an inexhaustible supply of bright young people needing to be educated.
We have been asked to believe that there is an ever-expandable supply of young people who can achieve good standards in a tertiary education course.
In asking us to believe this, the educators, the politicians, and the bureaucrats concerned have asked us to believe a lie.
The unfortunate truth is that all men were not created equal — certainly not in the brains department. Hence, as the numbers in our universities and Colleges of Advanced Education have grown and grown, it has been necessary to accommodate a greater and greater proportion of intellectual dross.
We have had to take on more and more students who are, not to put too fine a point on it — dumb.
Greedy professors, venal vice-chancellors, ambitious lecturers and power-hungry administrators have not allowed themselves to be deferred in their wild plans for expansion by any serious thought about what they were supposed to be producing with the flood of money they were given.
They did not worry themselves about what quality of product they were responsible for putting out. They gave a low priority to the question of “why they were doing it”. They were far more interested in “getting it done” — achieving an expansion in student numbers of a scale which must surely have made one or two of them sit back from the money trough for just a moment and consider whether what they were doing was, in fact, worth doing.
Of course, there were no voices raised from the gluttonous university and college professors questioning whether all this money was good for them. Of course, there were no voices raised from the battalions of self-seeking “intellectuals” asking whether they were in fact destroying learning, scholarship, intellectual standards and pride in achievements of the mind.
They were too busy grunting and grovelling, slobbering and shoving at the money trough suddenly put before them.
It has been a disgusting and degrading spectacle, one which will be remembered as the time, the years, in which Australian intellectuals showed they were just as base, just as greedy, just as self-seeking, just as vulgar as the masses of the people from whom they have isolated themselves.
Had any of the armies of “intellectuals” controlling Australian tertiary education bothered to look at the statistical record of what they were doing in the past decade, they must have had some little doubts, some echo of a small still voice, which would have brought them up sharply, giving them reason to ask whether they were on the right track.
For the statistical record is so blunt, so violent in its message, that only men and women totally incapable of self-assessment, totally inured to self-criticism, totally consumed by greed and ambition, could have missed the warning.
The past 20 years, and more particularly the past 10 years, have seen an expansion in the number of students in tertiary institutions so violent that any old relationships between numbers of school students and numbers of tertiary students have been totally disrupted.
Anyone looking at the trends in school student numbers and in tertiary student numbers must have asked himself “Where are all these bright kids coming from?”
He must have thought: “Will all these kids be able to complete courses without us, the leaders of these institutions, having to drop our standards?”
Until after World War II, only about one percent of Australian school students went on to university. In those times, the university was still very much a place for the financially privileged. Great numbers of school students who intellectually could have coped with and succeeded at university were excluded for financial reasons.
By 1952, following the success of the CRTS Scheme for returned soldiers and to the accompaniment of greater post-war prosperity and some Commonwealth financial assistance for impoverished students, there had been a big rise in the proportion of school students going on to university.
The proportion of university students to school students had risen to two percent by 1952 and was going on towards three percent by 1962.
Even by 1962 there had been a very strong growth in university student numbers, which in that year was more than twice the level of 1952 and more than six times the level of 1942. By any standards, the university population had exploded violently between 1942 and 1962.
But by 1962, the universities were beginning to realise they were on a very, very rich gravy train — and they proceeded to push harder and harder for more and more money.
In this, Menzies, with ideals which were shared by many men his contemporary and younger, who themselves had to fight for a tertiary education, was a strong ally of the universities.
The roller coaster gathered speed.
By 1972, the numbers of tertiary students had trebled again, and had reached the level of more than 200,000.
After such a blistering pace of expansion, one might have thought the greed of the tertiary controllers would have been sated.
But no; during the decade of the Seventies there has been a further paralysing growth of university and college student numbers, accompanied by (and stimulated by) an acceleration in the rate of growth of money being spent on education of such proportions as to put the nation’s entire Commonwealth Budget in jeopardy.
Between 1968 and 1978, to take the latest full decade for which figures are available, the number of students at tertiary institutions (a number which had already approximately trebled in the previous decade) doubled yet again — from 144,000 to 310,000, a rise of 115 percent.
In an attempt to put the magnitude of this disaster in other words, let me say that in the period of only six years, between 1971-72 and 1977-78, the proportion of the Australian gross domestic product spent on education increased from four percent to nearly six percent.
By now, our national commitment to tertiary education has escalated to the point where it represents a finite threat to the stability of the currency. We have embarked on the multiplication of tertiary education institutions and tertiary education student places as if the nation’s survival depended on it.
It has been a madness, a folie de grandeur. It has been a flop.
For all this money, what did we get? We got an army of half-baked, half-educated, misinformed, crammed, bored, bigoted and confused “liberal arts” majors; we got a corps of equally confused, frightened and misinformed “business and commerce studies” majors; and finally we got wave upon wave of resentful, lazy, half-baked school teachers.
Let us look first at the way in which the universities filled their faculties during the past 10 years.
We will find that they took in more and more tens of thousands of students; we will find they could only accommodate these students in the so-called “business and commerce studies”, “social and behaviour sciences”, “liberal arts”, and “education” faculties.
In short, the greatest area of growth in university student numbers was in the lightweight, intellectually undemanding areas of Arts/Letters, Education and Business/Commerce courses.
In the areas of science and technology, (where there are available rather more precise indicators of student learning power than in the bullshit subjects like English, Economics and History), the growth in numbers was vastly more modest.
While student numbers at universities in the “soft” areas of liberal arts, etc, rose by 215 percent, numbers in the “harder” areas of science, medicine and technology rose by only 98 percent — or less than half as fast as in the “bullshit” subjects, where objective student assessment is so much more difficult and where there is much more scope for professors and examiners generally to “give a helping hand” to many of the sub-standard students.
Of particular interest is the pattern of growth of one particular category, that of “medicine/surgery”.
This category takes in the whole of the area generally thought of when a “medical degree” is discussed. This is where the doctors are trained.
The case of medicine/surgery is of particular interest because it is known that there is intense competition for places in most medical faculties and that there is great pressure on medical students to perform.
From 1962 to 1978, the number of students in medicine/surgery rose from 5100 to only 8300.
This was an increase of only 63 percent over the 16 years in question, compared with a rise of 215 percent in the “bullshit” faculties and a rise of 152 percent in student numbers as a whole at universities.
Evidently, there was a very slow growth in the numbers of “medical students” or “trainee doctors” as compared with other categories of students and with student numbers in total.
There are two explanations which come to mind. First, by some secret process, the medical profession has managed with great success to stifle the rate of new entrants by somehow throttling the rate of admissions to university medical faculties.
I have always wanted to believe this is how the medical profession works its dreadful monopolistic rackets, but I have never been able to work out just how the body of doctors in the community manages to get the universities to stop taking aspiring medicine undergraduates. I do not say there is no connection. I do not deny the medical profession has a grand racket going, through the restriction of new entrants, but I cannot see how they have worked it out.
A second explanation for the very slow relative growth in the numbers of “trainee doctors” at our universities may be that this is one area of university training where it really is necessary for students to do a bit of work, and to show a bit of talent.
Hence, I would believe that the rate of growth of students in the medicine/surgery group is more indicative of the rate of growth of student numbers which would have occurred if the same criteria for student achievement had applied in 1978 as in 1962.
In other words, going on the belief that the medical faculties have been able to maintain their intellectual standards, it would seem that the growth of university student numbers would have been about 63 percent greater in 1978, than in 1962, if the universities had maintained the same intellectual standards in 1978 as in 1962.
This means that university student numbers in 1978 would have been only some 103,000 in 1978, instead of 160,000, if universities had maintained in 1978 the same intellectual standards they had adopted in 1962.
Far less fortunate than the doctors in maintaining their standards were the lawyers.
Over the period from 1962 to 1978, the number of students shown as in law faculties rose from 2500 to 8100.
For some reason, the lawyers and the law professors were much less discerning in their choice of undergraduate entrants, or much more greedy than the medicine professors in wanting to expand their faculties.
The law faculties in our universities were simply swamped by the flood of undergraduates and were incapable of fending off the little buggers.
Where total university student numbers rose by 153 percent over the 16 years, numbers in the law faculties rose by 224 percent, representing an even greater explosion in student numbers proportionately, than occurred in the dreadful “bullshit” areas of Arts/Letters, Commerce/Economics and Education.
Today we witness the pitiable sight of law graduates tramping the streets in search of work while their doctor colleagues still manage to gain fruitful employment.
The collapse of the law faculties is a sad and sorry sight, and is reflected in the flood of half-baked lawyers in the community.
While the medicine professors have always tended to arrogate to themselves higher intellectual standards than one really believes they possess, it is a fact that they have managed to impose on themselves far more effective self-denying ordinances in the area of student numbers than the law professors have managed to do.
While the decline of the universities is a sufficiently scandalous development, it is as nothing when compared with the monstrosities foisted on the community in the name of tertiary education through the so-called Colleges of Advanced Learning.
The development and degradation of these places makes the stomach churn. From their humble beginnings as glorified technical schools and teachers’ colleges, these places have boomed and ballooned into a great new second force in Australian tertiary education.
In the process, they have been overwhelmed, clearly drowning in a sea of white-faced students, grasping and struggling for that key to the kingdom — a tertiary education certificate.
How sad it is; how pitiable the plight of the youngsters concerned as they brawl and fight for what they believe is some sort of job guarantee, some kind of passport to job security and “a position”.
If the universities have been destroyed in large part by the greed of their administrators shooing and shoving at the larger flocks of terrified, starry-eyed students through the magic sheep dip of “an arts degree”, the destruction wreaked on the “colleges” has been almost terminal in its effects.
Acceptable figures for student numbers in the Colleges of Advanced Education only start about 1968.
At that time, there were some 28,600 students in what are now classified as Colleges of Advanced Education and there was another number of some 14,300 students in teachers’ colleges.
During 1974, the remaining government teachers colleges and kindergarten teachers colleges which were not classified as Colleges of Advanced Education, were so classified.
By 1978, there were three and a half times as many students in the Colleges of Advanced Education as there were in 1968.
By comparison, during that 10-year period, university student numbers rose by less than 60 percent.
Where, we ask ourselves, did all these CAE students go? Where else? They went into the “bullshit” courses on an even more extravagant, an even more bizarre scale than did the great influx of students to universities.
The boom in the Colleges of Advanced Education in the past 10 years had therefore been overwhelmingly a boom in half-baked liberal arts, business studies and teacher training courses. Starry-eyed students accepted for courses in these diploma factories have been shunted into the areas where they could do least trouble to themselves and to the shaky reputations of the colleges in liberal arts, business studies and teacher training it would be difficult for anyone to work out how dumb they really were.
As it is undoubtedly part of our “national heritage” for every teenager to be given a tertiary education as his birthright, it was quite seemly (or so it could be argued by avaricious educators panning to get their hands and mouths and feet into the Commonwealth pecuniary trough) for tens of thousands of these children to be plunged into the academic squalor of a CAE “education”.
Colleges are by now approximately equal in total student numbers to the universities, and we are able to summarise the combined experience of the two arms of “tertiary education” in Australia.
The past 10 years have seen massive destruction of tertiary education through the “forced feed” of masses of students through the bullshit courses.
These courses combined accounted for 45 percent of all tertiary student numbers as recently as 10 years ago. In 1962, when universities were, for all practical purposes, the only tertiary institutions in the land, these courses accounted for some 35 percent of student numbers.
Yet by 1978, these courses accounted for almost 60 percent of all student numbers in tertiary institutions.
To make the point even more boldly, we can observe that in the past 10 years, there has been an increase of 165,000 (or 114 percent) in total tertiary student numbers.
In broad terms, the number of students has doubled. Of this increase, 70 percent has been accounted for by the increase in the number of students enrolled in the bullshit courses.
By contrast, the growth in the science and technology group has been modest. Whereas total student numbers doubled over the 10 years (and numbers in the bullshit courses almost trebled), there was an increase of less than 50 percent in this area of science and technology. As the science and technology courses are more demanding and are subject to more objective measurement criteria, it could be argued that growth in this area presents a more accurate picture of the growth in student numbers which would have taken place had entry standards and post-entry sorting out been maintained in 1978 at approximately the same level as pertained in 1968.
The tertiary education system in Australia has developed along the following lines: vast quantities of money are pumped in at one end and vast quantities of half-baked graduates in bullshit courses in liberal arts (of which the major categories are English, History, Philosophy, Modern Languages), teacher training and business studies, come out the other end.
These students are then cast out into the market place to find jobs. And where are these jobs to be found?
You guessed it — in the Commonwealth Public Service and in the State Public Services.
There is nowhere else for these people to go. They are too highly qualified — by their own estimation — to work in most business firms, where they would be required to start working at a pretty low level.
But the Public Services of the land have become convinced that they must have graduates wherever possible.
What is more, in the Public Services it will take years to discover whether these youngsters are worth their keep.
In the majority of cases it will never be discovered whether they are worth their keep because in the Public Services there is, for all practical purposes, nothing to do anyway.
I well remember my early years in the Commonwealth Treasury in Canberra, fresh from a glittering academic career at the University of Cambridge in England. I was put at a desk in the Financial and Economic Policy Branch of the Treasury and was given nothing to do. After I left, knowing that if I stayed any longer I would simply degenerate into an irreversible alcoholic. (Not that there is all that much to do in “private enterprise”. I spent a year in the Economics Department of the Bank of New South Wales in 1955-56 and was not given any work to do.)
Perhaps the principal justification for the fortune spent each year on “educating” young Australians at tertiary level is that it keeps them off the streets and off the dole queues.
Indeed, we might ask ourselves just what we are doing with the young people of Australia.
Hundreds of thousands of them are rolling their minds in bullshit courses at tertiary education institutions and other hundreds of thousands are registered as unemployed.
As of March last year, there were some 425,000 registered unemployed in Australia. Of these, 145,000 were under 20 (representing a stunning 18 percent unemployment rate of this age group) and a further 91,000 under 25 were also registered as unemployed (a very high 9.5 percent unemployment rate among this age group).
More than one in four of the under 25 population of Australia who have left school are registered as unemployed or are tertiary students (and of this latter group a major proportion would be classified by any fair minded person as unemployed most of the time — tertiary studies only take about four weeks a year, in the panic preparation period for exams).
Seen in this light, tertiary education may be seen as a way of preventing the numbers of registered unemployed under 25 from reaching horrendous proportions. Sending children to a tertiary institution may be seen as a fancy way of “keeping them off the streets” or providing an expensive form of outdoor relief.
While the pressure for mindless expansion of tertiary education in the past 10 years or so has been principally venal, stemming from greed and ambition on the part of professors, lecturers and administrators, there was an earlier time, back in the Sixties and before, when the pressure for expansion of education facilities at tertiary level was altruistic, to a degree.
In the post-war decade, the universities enjoyed a period of growth which was vital and very fruitful. These were the times when thousands of students arrived at university gifted with very substantial talent.
This wave of students included large numbers of ex-servicemen who were enjoying the opportunity of a university education, from the privileges conferred by the CRTS scheme. At the University of Western Australia, where I was enrolled from 1946-50, these men included, in the group I was privileged to join, Austin Holmes, now a senior adviser to the Reserve Bank and the Commonwealth Government; Trevor Robinson, who was a computer innovator in Australia through the Control Data company; David Bradley, now Professor at Monash University; Peter Brindsen, now a judge in Perth; Alex Kerr, now a professor at Perth University; Reg Hare, head of Metals Exploration. Most of these CRTS students would never have had the opportunity to attend university before the war.
Along with these ex-servicemen there was a wave of talented high school graduates who were among the first wave of youngsters able to attend university through the advent of substantial Commonwealth funds.
At the time I attended Perth University, these included John Stone, now Secretary to the Treasury; Jules Zanetti, the noted journalist; John Wheeldon, now Senator; and Bob Hawke, now aspiring politician.
The universities were thus enjoying a great wave of fresh talent, as the old barriers to a university education were removed. This was the time when the nation benefited profoundly from the new freedom for talented people to move into positions of authority.
It is probable that these people were for some time later to believe that as they had gained such benefit from access to tertiary education, then it was right that there should be more and more opportunities for more and more young people to do the same.
Certainly, there was a prevailing belief during the Sixties and on to the Seventies that as far as tertiary education was concerned, “more is better”. There was also a belief that “book learnin’ is the best learnin’.”
For so many of the talented young people who got into university in the Forties and Fifties, there was a desire to shed working class backgrounds; and hence to shed the idea of working with their hands.
It is with dismay that I see the appalling waste and forthcoming disillusion which have followed the elevation of these thoughts into a dogma.
It is one thing to bring into a tertiary education system a high proportion of really talented people — as occurred in the country during the Forties and Fifties. It is another to make it a rule that almost anyone with a reasonable excuse must be pushed into a tertiary education institution and allowed to stay there for three or four years.
It is one thing for the number of tertiary students in the nation to be allowed to rise from one percent of the school population (the case before the Second World War) to three percent (the case in 1962).
It is another thing for the tertiary student population to be pushed without thought to the point where it represents 10 percent of the school population.
Among the leftist proponents of mass tertiary education there is often talk about the need to eliminate “elitism” in our society. Unfortunately, there is in Australia a very limited number of talented people who are capable of understanding a university education based on intellectual standards which were in force in 1942, 1952 and even in 1962.
The proportion of such people in the community is no different today than it was in 1962. Yet the proportion of schools students going on to tertiary education is today more than three times what it was in 1962.
There is an elitism in the dogma that we must all have a tertiary education if we want one.
The elitism would have us detest any for of learnin’ except book learnin’; it leads us to a contempt for practical life experience, for practical job experience, for practical jobs at all.
This lack of practical life experience, part of the legacy of a tertiary education, encourages timidity, including a desire by the new graduate to find a safe hole to hide, usually in the Public Service (State or Federal) or in big corporations. So much of tertiary education thus encourages a contempt for practical people and a fear of “the big wide world”.
As practised in Australia in the past 15 years, mass tertiary education has also laid the groundwork for great disillusion among the young people who have been encouraged to take part.
They now know, from bitter experience, that this great gift of tertiary education has left them with little that is saleable in the real world; it has held out promise of great things but has delivered them, armed with no practical, valued skills, into a world which does not need them.
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