Degree factories undermining literacy and numeracy

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that universities have become corporatised degree factories and this is having a long-tail effect.

A recent media article (behind a paywall, so I won’t post the link) states that nearly 10 per cent of Australia’s aspiring teachers are failing to meet basic literacy and numeracy standards, a significant deterioration in four years. It would seem potential teaching graduates are finding this out at the end of their four year degree, which cannot be awarded until they pass these basic tests mandated by the Australian Government (see example at the end of this piece).

Pair this with the fact that the OECD’s most OECD recent rankings showed the reading literacy of Australia’s 15-year-olds has fallen from fourth in the world in 2003 to 16th. In that time, numeracy figures fell from 11th to 29th.

And then throw in the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) evidence that some 44% of adult Australians (not including recent migrants) are functionally illiterate and innumerate.

My recent blog piece The Kids Are Not Alright highlighted the certainty that, under current social and economic polices, millions of Australians will never have full-time paid work in their lifetime, partly because they do not have the skills or experience (including literacy and numeracy) to fill the jobs of the future.

The Barangaroo Project in Sydney provides a shining light on the the type of thinking we are going to need in order to provide livelihoods and dignity for our current generation of young people and into the future. Let the debate begin.

The Kids Are Not Alright (and that means we’re all in trouble)

If there is a potential positive to emerge from the virus, it is the opportunity to address some very unpalatable social poisons. So, as the Roman Emperor Claudius once said, ‘Let all the poisons that are in the mud hatch out.’ Here’s just a few.

1.Already we are into a third generation of families where no-one has ever had a full-time job and, with the way our society and economy is structured, these people are unlikely to ever get a paid job as long as their arse points to the ground (as we say in Australia). Where jobs do exist, as in the fruit and veg picking industries for example, young Australians are bereft of the physical capacity and mental resilience to undertake such work and/or they consider such work as beneath them as they wait to become famous. So we import backpackers and overseas contract labour to ensure we all get to eat.

2. Not only are the officially unemployed at least three times as numerous as the vacancies available, the vast majority of those unemployed people don’t have the skills or experience to fill the vacancies that do exist. This is underpinned by the dirty little secret that at least a third of them are functionally illiterate and innumerate. Any ‘solution’ will lack perfection. However the principles of flexible on-site training and gradual work hardening and transferrable qualifications and skills, underpinned by literacy and numeracy support, could be the building blocks for both introducing young people to work and keeping them sustainably employed. If there is hope beyond the difficult task at hand, engagement and retention are that much easier and as a society we all benefit. Regarding wages, as consumers we have to be educated into the idea that every ‘saving’ we make is someone’s (including our own children) job gone now and into the future.

3. Increasingly jobs at every level of society are part-time, casual or contract, which makes planning for any sort of stable future impossible. Throw in the inability to have continuous access to affordable housing, utilities, transport, health care and food and we have an increasing proportion of our community who are constantly one step away from personal and financial disaster.

4. Our social ‘safety nets’ are the envy of many nations but it’s a low bar. During the virus crisis, the Government decided to double unemployment benefit because millions of Australians were about to experience unemployment and the resultant poverty for the first time. In other words ‘good’ Australians couldn’t be expected to live on the pittance that ‘bad’ unemployed Australians have had to live on. That pittance hasn’t increased in real terms for 25 years, leaving over 3 million Australians, living in one of the richest countries in the world, existing below the poverty line. (Before you ask, I don’t believe a guaranteed minimum income is affordable or the way forward to build dignity and self-worth.)

5. As long as governments, businesses and the employed continue in their relentless search for what’s cheap and fast rather than what is in their community’s and family’s interest, nothing will change. Think throwaway T-shirts from Asian sweatshops, self-serve at supermarkets, disposable gadgetry, ticketing machines and the list goes on. Ask any business in Australia now that relies on imports what they think of the supposed benefits of globalisation (aka beggar thy neighbour) and you’ll get a very different answer than the one you would have received a year ago.

As the Government’s massive economic stimulus has shown, it’s not that we don’t have the money to fix these problem over the coming decades. The question is whether the current crisis has given us the humility to question everything about how our economy can best serve us all, especially the young.