Australia’s increasingly useless university degrees

By Leith van Onselen

This site has argued repeatedly that a university degree has lost its value as graduate numbers have exploded, despite the significant cost to both students and the Budget.

Thanks to the uncapping of university places, 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.

In turn, higher education in Australia is no longer about boosting the nation’s productivity, but rather teaching as many students as possible to accumulate fees through the Commonwealth government’s HELP/HECS scheme, as well as from overseas students.

Indeed, the Productivity Commission’s recent report showed that employment outcomes for full-time graduates “have been getting worse”, whereas a quarter of recent graduates believed their degrees added no value:

For those who do complete their degrees, post graduation outcomes have been getting worse. Full-time employment rates for recent graduates have been declining, even as the Australian economy has continued to grow (figure 3.3). Many of those who do not work full-time are not in that position by choice, with the underemployment ratio among graduates at 20.5 per cent in 2016, compared with about 9 per cent in 2008. Graduate starting salaries have also been growing slower than wages across the broader economy (declining from nearly 90 per cent of average weekly earnings in 1989 to about 75 per cent in 2015)…

Further, over a quarter of recent graduates believed they were employed full-time in roles unrelated to their studies, to which their degree added no value. To the extent that someone without a costly university education could have undertaken these roles, this can then have cascading employment and income effects down the skills ladder.

Many employers are also not satisfied with the quality of recent graduates, with about one in six supervisors saying that they were unlikely to consider or would be indifferent to graduates from the same university…

University students are also not satisfied with the teaching in their courses…

Today, The Australian’s Adam Creighton reports that the value of Australian university degrees in the workplace has come under scrutiny following the release of a new survey showing that a significant share of graduates believe their university degrees were “not at all” important to their job:

The university sector is held up as a great ‘‘export industry’’ but one wonders how much quality education we’re really selling when more than half of employers think the bulk of graduates’ degrees aren’t vocationally useful.

The government’s latest survey of employer satisfaction, out today, appears to give a big tick to the nation’s universities: 84 per cent of businesses said they were satisfied with the attributes and skills of the graduates they hired.

The fine print is more sobering: most businesses thought qualifications in ‘‘management and commerce’’ and ‘‘society and culture’’ weren’t important. And graduates themselves in those areas were even more scathing, with barely 40 per cent suggesting they were important to their job.

If these management, commerce and arts courses aren’t providing useful vocational skills, and — forgive me for being cynical — if they aren’t fostering a capacity for innovation in graduates that stands to benefit us all, then why are taxpayers subsidising them so lavishly? More than 11 per cent of graduates surveyed, which would mean about 33,000 a year at current enrolment levels, said their degrees weren’t “at all” useful for their job…

The proliferation of dubious degrees alongside the even faster growth of high-fee-paying, non-English-speaking students has eroded the quality of Australian university education…

Except for highly specialised fields such as engineering and medicine, university is a signalling exercise… There must be more efficient ways for the diligent and able to signal this to potential employees than by spending more years obtaining more credentials at huge public and private cost.

Spot on. Degrees will continue to lose their value as long as the universities continue to lower education standards and  ‘print’ degrees en masse, flooding the labour market.

The government should shift its focus to the vocational TAFE sector where there are genuine skills shortages.

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  1. It’s all self perpetuating. There’s a barber shortage for example in NSW, my barber told me it’s been like this for ages, he was brought over from Ireland in the 90s and treated like a king to come over to AU. They even sweetened the deal with a stop in Thailand for 2 weeks at the time. This is what happens though, it’s worse now, TAFE has been gutted so they government will need to continue importing the skill shortages as people think University is the way to go.

    • There was never a barber shortage. In the 1990s, an old woman would cut the hair of strangers in her house and another woman would babysit kids in another house.

      This was in rural Vic. Not sure if it is illegal now.

      If the price of haircuts goes up, some men will shave their own head, while some women will keep long hair that does not need cutting. Some nail bars will stop decorating fingernails and start cutting hair instead. Women will paint their own fingernails once again.

      Japan has a shrinking population and is better for it.

      AUS has an immigration rate of 245,000/year and shrinking wages.

    • Don’t forget the Visa factory component, many coming from the 3rd world aren’t coming for a Masters of Shit degree from Australia Dodgy Uni, they are coming for PR. I have interviewed people from unis with IT degrees and a brick has more of a clue in many cases. Most of them can’t do anything on a computer, all they know is how to cheat and pass exams.

      Here is a good example of what a degree is worth, as soon as governments change skills shortage lists foreign students ask on forums what degree do I need for the new skills shortage

      So, they are jumping from degree to degree depending on skills shortage lists, not because of any quality of the degree. I think by memory Chinese uni’s now rank better than most Australian uni’s.

      • Spot on. I’ve lectured to classes full of foreign students, and at the end of my spray I’d have people come to ask me questions….about acquiring PR. 🙁
        And I’ve also interviewed graduate software developers who appeared to know nothing about computers or software. It’s a bloody disgrace!

    • @Jazzy
      Barber shortage??
      Hipster wankery shortage more like it!
      Like MasterCard purchases ‘priceless’
      Women were painting their own nails in the living room for decades until it was seminlegsl to import Thai/ch$$$$e girls at cut price rates, chauffeur them round from burb to burb in a clapped out van to nail salons by day and massage by night. I’m showing my age – if you’re under 30 a hipster cut throat shave is the norm or $40 mani /pedi weekly as mum has been treating you since you were 12 or now as the young ones come though mani/pedi from 4 when mummy is done with your bored company. Poor babies.

      • Good work Billy. Concur.

        Every time is see a hipster barber or barista with obligatory beard and tats i want to clobber them. Pussies the lot of them.

    • Barber Shortage ?!?!? I was living in the Parramatta area in the early 2000’s. There were so many barber shops, you could get your hair cut every week for a year, and not visit the same place twice.

  2. Any education today is superfluous cos the unskilled jobs are filled by los cost immigrants and the worthwhile jobs are regulated or automated to the extent the individual can not make a difference.
    Absolutely huge changes going into the system. Remember this year is the first official year of AI taking jobs. Say 4%pa simple growth to aggregate 40% in the next 5 to 8 years.

  3. Too many degree factory pr migrants

    Tge 4 corners episode a while back with the chinese lady.. my parents want me to get degree to get pr so i can work here

    Our degrees are sh1t..also why shold studying here entitle anyone to emmigrate here?

    • India is a much bigger source of immigration than China though.

      Absolutely disgusting that the Greens want entry level jobs here to go to Indians rather than Aussies.

      Theresa May is the hero. She kicks out foreign students within 24 months of completing their “degree”.

      Vote for SAP, AHP, Cory, Hanson, NXT.

    • I did a MA (Applied Linguistics) at one of the sandstone unis around 2008. I studied a language for my BA and had many years English language teaching experience in remote Australia. I was one of only two non-foreign students in the class. In my classes everyone was Chinese.
      I know that to get High Distinction at university you must add something new and original. This wasn’t difficult for me because I had a language background and my experience with Yolngu Matha and Kunwinjku speakers meant I could easily add a kernel of something original to each essay. I would get my essays back usually with around an 86 just scraping over the HD mark. Then I would look to my left or right to people who couldn’t really make a grammatical English sentence. They would invariably have a distinction.
      Basically it’s a two tiered system. If you are a native English speaker ‘real marking’ applies however if you are a foreign student ‘paying the fees applies’.
      I think the MA in Applied Linguistics is the main path to rorting but I suspect it happens in may other areas too.

      • Sooooo, what you’re saying there is that you were surrounded by a bunch of cunning linguists who sucked ars3…😏

    • Because it’s supposed to be a cultural exchange, not a residency-for-sale and low-cost labour rort.

  4. And yet every job I apply for requires a degree. They don’t care that I have 25 years experience in the field. If you don’t have a degree you don’t get shortlisted. A degree has value because the 20 year old former nightfall stacker working in the recruitment company has no ability to judge yoour worth. They just tick a list of boxes one of which is degree required.

  5. Uni degrees are a booming industry, our 3rd biggest “export”.

    There are going to be a lot of pissed of Chinese when they realize we sold ’em dud degrees.

  6. But Malcolm Trumbull told us that we had reached economic nirvana with our new service economy. I’m shocked that we might have been deceived by our hard working and honest politicians.

  7. Collectively universities are but another example of the self seeking – nay rent seeking tribal self interest which one finds throughout Straya in all sectors from unions to parliamentarians, housing industry etc.etc. . Since the bulk of a university’s revenue comes increasing student numbers which in due course churns out graduates (mostly in degrees that have little or no relevance to professional employment) that is what they focus on.

    Scholarships and other incentives should be introduced to redirect students to study in the areas where there are clear prospects of gainful and productive employment. Moreover within the existing arrangement academic standards have been eroded over the years as universities prostitute themselves in pursuit of student numbers.

  8. I don’t think degrees are worthless and disagree with MB view on this topic. What you learn in the degree itself is mostly useless but its how you apply the basics and your ability to do further research on a topic which is very valuable and is really determined by whether you are just smart at studying or smart at applying learned outcomes in real world situations. Two people could do the same degree at the same uni and have completely different career outcomes.

    • Have you had to get any plumbing work done lately?

      Gillard and Labor looked at the statistics which said ‘people who earn a degree earn more over a lifetime on average’. They then used their ‘higher order’ thinking skills obtained at uni to extrapolate that if EVERYONE did a degree then EVERYONE would earn above average earnings over a lifetime.

      Could they really be that stupid?

      I’m not sure. I don’t want to be hyper-bowlic.

      But of course one suspects an ulterior motive. Could it be that universities are hot beds of highly unionized
      Left wing activism?

      Could it be that some people take decades to recover from the brainwashing they receive at university? Could it be that universities lock up the youth vote for Labor?

      I did my BA in the 90s and I quickly realised that what I though was irrelevant. If I wanted good marks I just had to tell the lecturer what he or she wanted to know.

      University is no place for ideological dissent.

      • From what I have seen recently with someone i know Bachelor level degrees appear to be applied regurgitation. Masters level you have to state a case and defend it. Might be different at a different faculty … but a bachelors is aimed at 18-21 yr olds, tertiary McDonald’s. Masters aimed at adults.

      • I did my BA in the 90s and I quickly realised that what I though was irrelevant. If I wanted good marks I just had to tell the lecturer what he or she wanted to know.

        University is no place for ideological dissent.

        Same here – BA (ba ba black sheep) late ’80s
        Got a sibling in her 40’s did an MBA in group think about 6 years ago.
        Zero capacity to discuss just talks information & single POV at whomever is sitting opposite. Painful

  9. “The government should shift its focus to the vocational TAFE sector where there are genuine skills shortages.”
    You’re missing the point. When the government chooses where to focus “investment” in education, whether that’s university arts courses or vocational TAFE, it necessarily causes distortions. The minister for education can’t possibly more efficiently allocate the resources than the collective decisions of millions of people. Government funding of this consumption item is what is causing the problem. How many kids would go and study libtard university subjects at 20k a pop if they had to work for and save the money themselves?

    • Given it’s roughly on a par with annual private school fees, probably a similar number, maybe a little higher given in this scenario there would be no free alternative.

    • The minister for education can’t possibly more efficiently allocate the resources than the collective decisions of millions of people.

      Of course he can, because unlike “the market”, he can be proactive to funnel resources towards skills that are identified as being of long-term value.

      Government funding of this consumption item is what is causing the problem.

      No, it’s not. Not maintaining academic standards is what is causing the problem.

      Stepping back further, the massive labour surplus is what’s causing this problem, as people – mostly kids – need ever greater and greater “qualifications” to get a toe in the door for a job.

      How many kids would go and study libtard university subjects at 20k a pop if they had to work for and save the money themselves?

      Don’t worry, we’ll get back to that classist, feudal society you want, with its highly concentrated wealth and near zero social mobility, fast enough.

  10. I thought the Coalition were cutting Uni Funding?

    There is what, 20-30% of the graduating 18-year old cohort suitable to study at a university each year? Calculate the university funding based on that and then further sub-direct funding for each type of degree based on areas of skill shortage.

    The rest of the population can learn a trade or work unskilled jobs. Cut immigration while you’re at it. Sounds good to me!

    • There is what, 20-30% of the graduating 18-year old cohort suitable to study at a university each year?

      By what measure? Seems like something almost completely in the eye of the beholder

      The rest of the population can learn a trade or work unskilled jobs.

      What unskilled jobs? Might have been fine when we still had a manufacturing industry, but apart from Deliveroo driver and cousins -which doesn’t look like something you can support a family on – unskilled jobs are dead in the water.

    • Slash 457 visas by 95% and you will see Aussie graduates being hired instead of foreign graduates.

      Also, pay hospitals to produce nurses rather than paying “unis” to produce way too many nurses.

      Force the big 4 banks to produce accountants rather than paying the “unis” to produce way too many accountants.

  11. Jumping jack flash

    Quite simply many of the courses now taught in universities should have been handed to TAFE years ago.
    But its probably too late now, because TAFE is ruined.

    Nursing, teaching, IT, engineering, law, to name a few should have initial offerings at TAFE to gain a “trade certificate” and industry experience with apprenticeships and traineeships, and then universities should be used after that, for specific research in various areas of each subject.

    Highschool kids should have never been allowed to jump straight into university without first getting industry experience and an idea of what they wanted to research, and if they even wanted to do research in a particular topic in a particular field of study.

    Most professions have their own industry training and accreditation systems as well which are far better in terms of practicality than a degree at a university.

    But, everyone wants the prestige of a “degree” without fully understanding what one is, or what one means, or the role of universities.

    So through legislation over decades, we have a ton of non-academics trudging through universities now, and it is no surprise that they aren’t up to traditional university standards, and therefore drag the whole thing down to the level of TAFE, which is where most of them should have gone in the first place, if it still existed in any capacity.

    • But, everyone wants the prestige of a “degree” without fully understanding what one is, or what one means, or the role of universities

      No they don’t, they want a degree because they “need” one to get a decent job.

  12. The govt has just cut uni places. They have frozen funding at 2017 levels but indexed the $/place, so to remain within the cap unis will have to cut places over the next three years. Also you may not be aware but the govt subsidises places differtially by discipline area. Management and commerce and Law students have the lowest levels of subsidy, under current rates students have to pay $10k per year and the govt only throws in an additional $2k. Nurses pay $6.5k per year and the govt throws in an additional $14k. Engineering and medical/dentistry etc are similar to nursing with higher levels if subsidy. So while I would agree there are probably a lot of management and commerce students etc with qualifications that may not be necessary, it’s the student themselves that is paying most of the bill. The different govt and student contribution levels are the levers that the govt has, and uses, to try and influence prospective student choices – however thus mechanism doesn’t always have the impact on choice you’d expect.

  13. This is how backwards Australia is now.
    Universities are money-making machines, not institutions that nurture creativity and entrepreneurship. They are so disconnected from what industries need. The VET sector is more appropriate, but still, Australia is WAY behind the rest of the world.
    Our schools do not need more money. They need less complexity, get back to basics, and less kids (ie.limit population growth).
    Kids would be better off dropping out of school at 16, working at Macdonalds, and becoming a manager there.
    How ridiculous.