Universities hoover-up the great unwashed

By Leith van Onselen

A university degree in Australia used to mean something.

It used to be that to gain entry to a decent course at a decent institution, students were required to work hard at school and gain a tertiary entrance score above a high threshold.

Those days are long gone. Thanks to the former Labor Government’s uncapping of university places in 2012, allowing universities to recruit as many students as they can fit in order to accumulate HELP/HECS funding, actual tertiary entrance scores have plummeted, meaning every person and their dog can now get a degree, devaluing their worth in the process.

Evidence of this is on display in a new Higher Education Standards Panel discussion paper, which has found that 56% of students commencing bachelor degrees were admitted based on criteria other than their Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) in 2015 – the highest proportion in a decade – and that average ATAR entrance scores have fallen considerably:

The report also found “that the likelihood of withdrawing from study is generally correlated with ATAR (see Figure 7)”:

In addition to the lowering of university entrance scores, further evidence that Australia’s universities have turned into quantity-based ‘degree factories’ is also provided in the most recent Department of Employment skills shortages report, which showed there were a record 1 million domestic students enrolled with a higher education provider, 730,000 of which were enrolled in bachelor degrees – an extraordinary amount of higher education students in an economy of 24.5 million:

ScreenHunter_14572 Aug. 23 15.44

Meanwhile, bachelor degree graduate employment outcomes are falling and are at “historically low levels”:

ScreenHunter_14575 Aug. 23 16.01

The problem is accentuated by the proliferation of international students, whereby degrees are sold to maximise profit at the expense of dumbed-down standards, with foreign students also enticed with the prospect of gaining permanent residency once they finish their courses, thus maintaining the population ponzi.

The more people that have a degree, the more this becomes a basic expectation for employers, leaving those without one further behind. Meanwhile, those that do obtain a degree are experiencing a gradual diminution in their pay, with graduate starting salaries for bachelor degree graduates deteriorating steadily since the 1970s, commensurate with the rise in university participation:

ScreenHunter_14910 Sep. 13 09.34

In a similar vein, employers in Australia no longer bother recruiting school leavers and training them up. Instead, they tend to recruit university graduates and then complain when they don’t have the requisite skills. In the meantime, students are forgoing earnings while they study, while sinking tens-of-thousands of dollars of sunk costs into gaining their increasingly worthless degree.

Australians need to ask themselves: what is tertiary education actually for and who does it benefit? Is it a public good used to boost the nation’s productivity and prosperity, or is it merely another commodity to be sold for short-term profit to line the education sector’s pockets?

[email protected]


  1. univeristies in australia will basically accept any man and their dog these days. especially the dawkins reforms univerisites like my own alma mater, CSU, which seems to just about accept any applicant that has a pencil. it’s qualification quantitative easing writ large, all to enrich the rent-seeking educational industrial establishment.

    degrees dispense vague content to students, which is readily and quickly forgotten in moments anyway, and has little to no tangible connection to actual work. employers like the situation because theyve gotten a cheap, quick and dirty proxy for a minimum level of intelligence and work ethic when assessing job applicants in the form of degrees that taxpayers pay for. as more and more people complete bachelors degrees this will ultimately result in workplaces demanding masters degrees and beyond as a minimum standard for consideration. no masters (or perhaps even phd someday) and your resume goes in the bin. not even considered.

    uni is the new high school.

    • I do not think so.

      Aussie bosses do not want smart staff – otherwise they would not say things like “overqualified”.

      And Aussie bosses do not care about education – otherwise they would not hire immigrants like Bhavesh Shah and Shyam Acharya (high profile cases, no doubt there are tens of thousands of no-profile cases).

      Aussie bosses literally want to hire incompetent staff and then complain about how incompetent the staff are.

      • Australian bosses want obedient, unquestioning workers that are intelligent enough to meet the KPI’s that will make the bosses look good and stupid enough to swallow all the company propaganda that is shoved down their throats and conditions that are shoved up where the sun doesn’t shine without too much complaint.

    • yes aussie bosses are dumb by global standards but they still want degrees, trust me ive been working crap tier jobs (slaughterhouse, fast food, warehousepacker) for most of my 20s and have been locked out of the job market because i don’t have a degree. hence why i went ‘back’ to school.

    • One huge issue in our 20s was that we did not know what course to do.

      But now the issue is even if we study hard, the jobs are given to 457 visa staff anyway. Absolutely infuriating.

      • we are the screwed generation, utterly left behind as the boomers “grandfather” (aka cross the drawbridge and pull it up over the moat) themselves into their negatively geared, population-ponzi protected multi million dollar sydney homes.

      • fitzroyMEMBER

        Infuriating for boomer Australians who want to see their children with the same opportunities they had. 457s should be abolished and people trained up instead. Not everyone lives in the eastern suburbs in Sydney.

  2. When you cant give young people a decent job with decent pay and the prospect of a secure roof over their heads, you avoid having to support them through the welfare system by herding them into increasingly commercialised and useless further education. At their expense.

    Win (lose)

  3. In Finland, kids start school at the age of 7 – something worth replicating in AUS.

    Germany has the best apprenticeship system on the planet probably. You Tube iLRqPkexp2A (12 min into the video Al Jazeera People and Power – Future of Jobs)

    The Economist has written about it a few times.

    But hey Gillard, ignore the brilliant apprenticeship system in Germany and instead get every Tom, Dick, and Harry into uni!

    • Yeh I call bullshit on this whole Denmark/Netherlands late start system. They just have different names for things. “School” is when they start structured learning. They go to places that do the equivalent of our Kindy/Reception/Year1 but just don’t call it “School” like we do.

      • A lot of school is pointless anyway. Instead of trying to teach the strange language that Shakespeare spoke, they should teach how preferential voting works. And how to calculate the running costs of a car – diesel vs petrol. Rather than who reached the south pole first.

        They also tried to teach us about the American civil war. Much more relevant to teach how Dubai went from a place that had no electricity in 1950 to an oasis in the Middle East. How Singapore got kicked out of Malaysia and went on to become a much better nation than Malaysia (Singapore has been less corrupt than AUS for 10-20 years now).

        I heard that schools in the Middle East still teach the abacus! Maybe teach them about credit card debt instead.

        Even I started to wonder if AUS really had preferential voting when Howard kept winning the election!

      • i remember when i was in primary/hs in the late 90s and 2000s and learning about gallipoli every single year. non stop.

      • Jacob, you are conflating a lot of issues here. If we just focus on your statement that a lot of school is pointless, you are saying this from your perspective. By design school has to be wide in scope. Otherwise it would have to be a caste system where you learn what you need for the job you have been assigned from birth. Also, the German model that you praise (I like it too) is a hybrid between uni and Tafe.

    • The AU preferential system is rubbish because it favours the two major parties. If votes were assigned 3,2,1 as they are cast, then many candidates outside of the duopoly would win. e.g. when I vote 6,5,4,3,2,1 with lib/lab last, I dont want my full vote to reach that party. It is rigged.

      • Steven, you DO NOT have to fill in all the boxes on the green ballot paper, despite the instructions! Most people seem unaware of this. It will be a valid vote even if you only write ‘1’ in one of the boxes.

    • Gillard govt. was odd in creating more demand for universities without stipulating any course or study priorities matching real or perceived skill shortages?

      Universities went neo-liberal years ago before international students for several reasons including govt. budget pressure due to demographics, need to employ excess baby boomers in academia and education management, and allow universities to provide academic consultants for corporate and politics without needing to adhere to academic ethics.

      I’d suggest these days if young and unsure or older and wanting to test the waters do a TAFE course first as foundation, then higher study. Further, one does not need limit themselves to Australian institutions on campus or online, there are many courses elsewhere of equal or better quality, with lower fees.

      However, another aspect is class, many companies and public sector require minimum a degree while aspiring middle class demand white collar occupations needing a degree, even if not possessing the aptitude.

  4. Cough….. the market demanded it…

    disheveled…. remember the guy that fronted Howard publicly about turning Uni into degree mills…. sigh…

  5. I appreciate the argument being made here, but as one of the “great unwashed” I very much appreciated the opportunity to go to uni. I agree there are issues around the cost to government, student debt, employability and even degree quality, but as a mature aged student i found my time at uni a deeply rewarding and enriching experience. At the end of the day it’s an opportunity and you get out what you put in. Whether others appreciate that is another question.

    And yeah maybe I didn’t deserve my spot at uni, I’m just a working class pleb, and I’m definitely not the sharpest knife in the draw, but I’m wiser and a better person for my experience. All that said, I appreciate some tax payers don’t like the idea of funding a chunk of my university degree, but as a 40 year old labourer I needed to retain. I don’t have the personality for customer service and physical work is no longer a long term option. Ultimately I’ll probably still be thrown on the unemployed scrap heap, but at least I had a shot at crawling out of poverty.

    • haroldusMEMBER

      Sometimes I think I’d like to chuck in my high flying life as database searcher and start a “fair wage” cleaning company with you!

    • Well said Robw, I count myself amongst the great unwashed. School was not easy for me but once I got to uni I was able to make a go of it and get a degree which got me into a career. A few years back that career ended so I enrolled in a Masters to retrain, no 1st class honours or anything but I am like a dog with a bone and I worked my ass off. It has not provided the benefits workwise I hoped, but I am in with a a chance now. If the economy was not in a coma I am sure it would be paying dividends already.

      • Also well said Rob. If we are going to deal with a bit of bureaucracy and waste in society (never going to be rid of it so best just suck it up to a slight degree) I don’t mind so much if it occurs in the university system. There is bound to be a fair amount of good that comes of it still and it is unlikely to be the undoing of society.

      • Exactly. I know plenty of my high school classmates that utterly stuffed up at high school, but was able to pick themselves up through alternative pathways, lower tier higher education institutions and determination. Plenty of them managed to secure stable professional jobs.

      • Your story very much reflects mine, although I’m yet to bite the bullet and do a Masters degree. I’m torn between that and Haroldus’s idea of a fair wage/ethical cleaning company. At least I know I have the option of further study.

    • I don’t have the personality for customer service

      To be fair though, a massive chunk of the people actually working in customer service don’t either.

  6. The Great (Ross) Gittens wrote recently in the Sydney Morning Clickbait that he had no issues with the level of fees students have to pay as (I paraphrase) ‘the piece of paper received on graduation is a guarantee of a lifetime of well paid employment’.

    You will find things might have changed since your time, Gittens, my friend.
    Oh to be a member of the elite!

    • But how is the situation actually good in Gittrn’s time. It used to be all you had to do to get a job was get into uni (through smarts or money) then simply get a pass to secure a job. Now days, your university transcript is pivotal in getting jobs.

  7. Bullshit degrees for bullshit jobs. This has been going on for decades. Last time I was near a uni the students looked to be 95% Asian. A couple of lonely looking whites. I don’t think we really need 10 universities per city. The left needs to justify their basket weaving studies and the right looking to put absolutely anyone and anything in debt. What a combo of cnts.

    • Ownen; it depends on the faculty.
      Asian (international) students have become a huge cash cow for Australian Uni’s.

  8. Many jobs require licenses or insurance which you can only get with a degree. Some degrees these days are worth it if you plan to start your own business (science, engineering, health) so it all depends on what you get out of it and how you plan to use it afterward. Uni itself doesn’t teach you all that much, it’s how you use your skills that count.


    “Australia is the destination for 6% of international students. The top sending countries are China, India, Malaysia, and Vietnam. 44.7 % of these students study Business Management, and 11.8% study Engineering. Education has become the largest export service in Australia. The costs of studying in Australia are considerably lower than in the UK and the US, and students can work part-time and access scholarships and grants. Australia has become a frontier in technological innovations which attracts many foreign students. There are plenty of options for students who want to work in Australia after graduation. A point system is used to determine whether graduates are eligible to obtain a visa. The method is straightforward and encourages many students to stay.”

    In ‘volume’ we’re behind USA who attract 19% of Int’l students and UK who receive 10%. But in Int’l students per capita, we’re in a league all our own.

    ….encourages many to stay!
    Must be part of the 100 year plan.


    • Note that with double digit growth in number for at least the last two years, Japan stands a good chance of over taking us in the next few years.


        Thanks SS
        Didn’t know that–perhaps on volume; but not per capita.
        What’s the forecast for #’s that will choose Japan?
        We had ~0.5mil Int students here in 2015- approx. 2% of total population

      • About half- 240k odd in 2016, but up from 180k only two years prior.
        For example, 90% increase in students from Vietnam in Japan in 2015 followed by another 40% increase, while essentially no change in numbers in Australia.

  10. there’s another side to this argument as outlined here:
    If you talk to many of my mob they’ll tell you they were no good at school and there’s no way that they’ll ever go back to study. Trouble is in today’s changing world there is no such thing as a life time spent in a single career, we’re all going to live many lives and train and retrain, even in areas like Engineering and Medicine many if not most graduates will be in Managerial roles within ten years of graduation. It’s really hard at the bottom when learning’s not your thing and the job you somehow found simply disappears.
    Part of the problem is the pay structures that reward people and financial management way above all other business activities. Even the slowest get the message eventually and this is where retraining / re-education plays a vital role in keeping our economy vibrant. Raises the quaetion: what do you do with the young kids that really weren’t cut out for school?
    By the age of about 30 they’ve either resigned themselves to live a very difficult life or they’ve taken the equally difficult decision to go-back-to-school….or for those that can’t decide there’s always prison.
    Tertiary Education might be a huge rort BUT the alternative is equally if not more costly, if you know anyone that’s ever been to prison then you’ll know just what a rort that is. Prison makes our education system look like a very cheap alternative.

    I watched an excellent NZ movie the other day called,
    Once we were Warriors.
    The movie is not about education but it does give an insight into the alternatives.

    • Australia’s a big enough place that if people who can make it happen want it, school can take on enough different forms to cater for most kids. At the moment, and probably since the late ’80s, the trend has seemingly been in the opposite direction i.e. to make schools more and more alike (more schools chasing ATAR as the only goal), rather than different schools chasing different outcomes for different kinds of people.

      • I couldn’t agree more, I tell my kids to forget all about ATAR, it’s a meaningless number, focus instead on developing a love for learning. If school delivers nothing more than a thirst for knowledge then in my opinion it has been a success.
        Today we are obsessed with the form that this knowledge takes, knowledge of the dream-time isn’t knowledge at all…it’s just a silly story. There’s a lot more actionable medical science buried in the heads of our elders then can possibly be discovered with any silly written test, a simple life has to be lived before you can ever understand the beauty of simplicity. But where do you learn that knowledge, certainly not from chasing an ATAR nor from any modern Uni. Maybe our Elders should be paid as educators.

  11. kiwikarynMEMBER

    Previously, schools had two paths for the kids to pursue – vocational training, and University, and everyone was appropriately steered into the correct path for them from about age 15. Now schools are ranked on their academic (ie. University entrance) scores, so vocational training has been given the heave ho. The whole concept of streaming and careers advice has disappeared in a politically correct world were every child is “special” and “can do anything”. So kids while away their days at high school, when they could be in an apprenticeship and at TAFE, while others struggle on in the hope of gaining entrance to University despite having no real desire to pursue a career in that field.
    Melbourne Uni’s response is to give everyone an undergraduate degree, but only teach the professional courses at post-graduate level . The result is that having a Master’s is now the same thing as having an old Bachelors. But the student is in far more debt, and has now sacrified 6-7 years of their life rather than 3-4.