Education's forgotten stakeholder

Between scholarships for college-drop-outs, and commencement addresses at art and design colleges, the issue of the value of tertiary education has been getting plenty of airtime.

Yet it is important to keep in mind that there are significant differences between the U.S. - where most of the online commentary is originating from - and other countries, particularly Australian, in terms of the relevance of tertiary study and employment rates. After all, the U.S. is in the throes of what some online commentators are calling a higher education bubble and a jobs depression.

Highlighting the differences in the quality of education around the world, a recent New York Times column discusses the superior scores for high-school science and technology students in Germany compared to the United States. The article he links to explains that “Maintaining our productivity as a nation depends importantly on developing a highly qualified cadre of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and other professionals.” If generating a sense of nationalistic indignation is necessary to increase the social valuation of education, then so be it.

However, one voice seems to be largely absent from the social discourses surrounding further education: the students themselves. What is most frightening however is that no one seems to care.

Divided loyalties and captive audiences

One of the reasons why this has happened is that in spite of being the ostensible beneficiaries of education, students have little choice over whether or not to attend school. Parents force their children to go to primary and high school for several reasons:

  • the government requires them to do so
  • they have their own day jobs to attend
  • they unquestioned believe in the value of social skills acquired through communal schooling.

This arrangement is possible thanks to a corpus of teachers who need to earn a living themselves - and have some vague notions of changing the world (by, well, telling their students to change the world themselves).

Undergraduate study is not exempt from this problem either – though in this case, future employers are the ones leaning on the students, rather than their parents.

Consequently, formal education institutions force participants – the students - to divide and misplace their loyalties. For instance, teenagers do not go to high school to develop some rudimentary schools, and experiment with a variety of different subjects to find out what tickles their fantasy. Rather, they attend in order placate their parents.

Furthermore, young adults rarely attend University for a liberal education so that they may develop critical thinking, and cultural capital. Rather, they attend to gain a piece of paper that will give them social and professional kudos. We like to think of Universities as being temples of learning and wisdom, yet they exist largely to help fulfill very different imperatives.

This may well be the source of the woes regarding education: we continue to pretend that it is all about the student. However, they are but a peripheral concern – in reality, we just want to be better than Germany.

Photo credit: Mark Brannan