A Comment on the Federal Government’s ‘Job-ready Graduates Package’
When I graduated with my BA last December, I marked the occasion by sharing a few thoughts about the inaccessibility of higher education on Facebook – about how universities are designed to be inclusive spaces for certain types of students only.
I made that statement then because I felt it would have been dishonest of me to portray my achievements as a product of hard work, without acknowledging my positions of extraordinary privilege. I am writing this statement now because silence is often complicity, and I do not wish to be part of a tacit acceptance of the Morrison Government’s assault on higher education and on students – particularly young people.
The Federal Government’s recently announced ‘Job-Ready Graduates Package’ proposes several major changes to the higher education sector – including a) funding cuts to humanities courses, leading to higher fees for students, and b) measures that will bar access to government loans for students who fail more than 50 per cent of their subjects.
I’m not going to outline the devastating, inequitable effects that these policies will have on many students, because, frankly, I don’t think it is my place to do so. I can’t pretend as if I would have been affected by these changes – my access to education has never been predicated on the availability of government funding. (You can read about some of the likely impacts on The Conversation, SBS, Crikey, Medium and Canberra Times, though).
What I do wish to point out, however, is that this package reinforces some dangerous ideas about students and higher education – ideological positions that will cause harm to many young people currently studying or looking to study at universities.
It assumes the purpose of universities is to make individuals ‘employable’ and get them into jobs. But universities have (or at least, should have) a function in society that is beyond getting people into jobs. Universities are spaces to learn new skills and ways of thinking, not just to support the economy, but to push the boundaries of knowledge and advance society more broadly. On the level of individuals, there is also value in learning simply for the sake of learning. We should not devalue education and limit its purpose to creating employment outcomes.
(Besides, it’s a total mischaracterisation of the causes of youth or graduate unemployment to consider it the realm of universities to make students ‘job-ready’, when the fact is the jobs simply do not exist … but that’s a discussion in itself.)
This package also implies that when students encounter challenges in their learning, this is because of individuals – individuals not working hard enough, not being resilient enough when they encounter adverse life circumstances, or simply not having suitable qualities or skills for the pathways they have chosen. This narrative ignores the real barriers to educational ‘success’ by problematising students’ behaviours and decisions, rather than the systemic (and systematic) failures of institutions (including governments!). We should not allow ourselves to buy into this neoliberal framing of students’ experiences in higher education. It puts responsibility onto individuals when the problem is fundamentally embedded in structures.
If the Morrison Government is so concerned about students taking courses that aren’t leading into career pathways, or students failing subjects and racking up debt they can’t repay, it should be making those courses more effective and creating more support for people to succeed.
It should be enabling universities to better serve their diverse student populations by, for example, making academics eligible for JobKeeper payments and addressing job insecurity in the university sector, so that teaching staff can afford to provide the academic support that students deserve. It should be resourcing them to provide more flexible ways to learn, or safer and more culturally, physically and socially accessible campuses.
It should also be working to address the structural conditions that are the real drivers of student ‘failure’ – poverty, youth homelessness, family violence, racism, mental ill-health, precarious employment and unemployment, and so on. These challenges are endemic amongst university students and entrenched by ill-formed government policies – and will never be fully covered by well-meaning special consideration or academic exemption measures.
Yet, our Federal Government is choosing instead to penalise students, by limiting the range of options available to them in higher education – and for some people, cutting off access completely. In this era of sky-high youth unemployment and increasing uncertainty about the future of work, this is a disappointing and ineffective policy approach.
The ‘Job-ready Graduates Package’ reflects and will reinforce the claim that ‘university just isn’t right for some people’. It’s a claim that is absolutely true – university just isn’t right for some people. But that is not because of who those people are. As I reflected in December last year, that is because higher education has been designed so that only particular types of students (ie. students who have the capacity to demonstrate all the characteristics of a perfect neoliberal subject) can thrive.
We desperately need a redesign of universities, and of the education sector more broadly, so that they can better serve the needs of all students. The Morrison Government’s proposals are a major step in the wrong direction.