Why would teens today want to go to uni?

Erin Stewart: Getting a degree doesn’t necessarily mean getting ahead of the pack.
Erin Stewart: Getting a degree doesn’t necessarily mean getting ahead of the pack.

Teenagers today are less likely to expect to go to university or TAFE than they did 15 years ago. 

In 2003, says the Australian Council for Educational Research, 63 per cent of teens planned to go to university and 8 per cent to TAFE. Its most recent survey results reveal that, now, only 54 per cent of teens are aiming for university and 3 per cent for TAFE.

It’s startling, but it makes sense. Teenagers can see that, in our current economy, getting a tertiary education is risky. It puts you in debt, you can’t earn as much while you’re studying and it no longer guarantees you a job that’s commensurate with the skills and knowledge you’ve gained.

I was a teenager in 2003. My generation hadn’t factored in the global financial crisis or the fact that Australia wouldn’t create many technical or professional services jobs. We thought that to get a good job, all you had to do was work hard in school, get good marks and go to uni. That formula hasn’t worked for us. It’s discouraging to watch my bright, talented friends face rejection after rejection.

In reality, the issues aren’t personal but structural.

According to a report by the Brotherhood of St Laurence, there’s been a 50 per cent reduction in entry-level jobs on offer since 2006. Across the whole economy, there are 16 job seekers for each vacancy. 

Getting a degree doesn’t necessarily mean getting ahead of the pack. According to a recent Reserve Bank paper, 30 per cent of new graduates who are ready and able to enter the workforce don’t get a full-time job within four months of graduating.

In 2011, the then vice-chancellor of the Australian National University postulated that "without basic structural reform of our economy, we could end up with the best educated shop assistants in the world". So why would teenagers want to get a degree?

None of this is to say teenagers shouldn’t aspire to further education. Education is not the problem. The problem is that our national plan is putting people who can solve partial differential equations behind cash registers.

  • Erin Stewart is a Fairfax Media columnist