By JR on Friday, April 08, 2016
Credentialism is alive and well in Australia
The value assigned to more and more education is a great folly. Jobs that were once done perfectly well by a high school graduate now mainly go to university graduates. Teaching is a good example. You mostly now have to have a 4-year teaching degree to become a teacher. Yet for two years I successfully taught senior High School geography even though my highest qualification for it was junior High School geography. I just kept a chapter ahead in our geography book.
As the ups and downs of the mining boom stole the headlines Australia was experiencing a less celebrated economic transformation: a know-how boom.
Since the middle of last decade the share of adults with an advanced post-school qualification has swelled dramatically.
In 2005 the proportion of Australians aged between 20 and 64 with a Certificate III qualification or higher has jumped from 47 per cent to 60 per cent (Certificate III level recognises advanced technical skills and knowledge, such as a tradesman). In that period the share of 20- to 64-year-olds with a bachelor degree or higher has climbed from about 21 per cent to nearly 30 per cent.
The trend for school students to stay in class longer is similar. Over the past decade the national year 12 student retention rate has climbed from 74.7 per cent to 87 per cent.
Government policies have played a role in boosting the number of adults with university degrees and technical qualifications but the main driver towards obtaining those qualifications is a perception among individuals that know-how has become a modern necessity. It's a reflection of a momentous economic shift towards knowledge-based employment. Those with higher qualifications are more likely to be employed, to earn more when they are employed, to increase the productivity of their co-workers, to increase innovation and technical change and increase employers' profits.
The proportion of adults with a higher qualification is set to keep rising.
That's good news, overall. But the know-how boom has also exacerbated a hazardous political fault line.
Despite all those new qualifications, a big portion of voters still have little or no post-school education. And that leaves them increasingly vulnerable to economic change.
Employment in high-skill, high-value knowledge industries has tended to grow more quickly than other sectors, especially in big cities. Low-skill workers are likely to face growing competition from new migrants, offshoring and even robots.
"It's pretty Darwinian out there in the labour market these days," says Dr Nicholas Gruen, the economist who authors the Wellbeing Index. "If you don't have a post-school qualification the odds are stacked against you."
That's an obvious recipe for discontent. You don't have to look far to see the strife this growing educational-cultural divide can fuel.
In the US, Donald Trump's unsavoury campaign for President has been underpinned by poorly educated voters angry about how society is changing. His candidacy has exposed a deep fissure in US politics: class and education. Analysts note that the single best predictor of support for Trump during the Republican Party primaries has been the absence of a college degree.
In Britain, the educational-cultural divide is a factor in the campaign to exit the European Union, known as "Brexit.
The Economist magazine points out those without tertiary qualifications are much more likely to favour "Brexit" than graduates. It argues that "Britain's great European divide is really about education and class". Britain is scheduled to hold a referendum in June asking voters whether they want Britain to remain in the 28-nation economic block. The latest opinion polls show the "Leave Europe" camp with a solid lead.
Should Britain vote to leave the EU the uncertainty would shake global financial markets and probably take a toll on the global economy.
Australian politics isn't plagued by Trumpism or Brexit but it would be folly to assume politics here is immune to the educational-cultural divisions on show in English-speaking democracies with whom we often compare ourselves.
"It's a big new divide all right," says Gruen. "We've seen it before with Pauline Hanson and to some extent the National Party. It's a pretty toxic situation."
The know-how gap in Australia looms as a significant economic and political challenge. That should shine the spotlight on the effectiveness of our education systems: from early childhood through to universities.