Saturday, 9 July 2011

Was my degree worth $40,705?

I have spent the last 4.5 years of my life at Monash University, studying Environmental Science. I now have a student loan debt of $40,705.

And you know what? I'm not going to be an Environmental Scientist. Like many uni graduates (stats anyone?), I don't intend on using my degree for my future career. Some people would look at my story and think "he just wasted 4.5 years of his life and cost the government $40,705 for nothing".

Let's look at the argument both ways. Topic for the debate "Was Jeremy's degree a waste of time and money?"

Negative: It was worthwhile
I certainly got something from my 4.5 years.
  • Strong analytical skills. I can now read an academic paper, pick apart the evidence and decide whether its claims are accurate.
  • Critical thinking. By the end of my degree, I was an autonomous researcher, choosing questions I was interested in exploring and designing experiments to answer those questions.
  • Effective and succinct writing. I culled my honours thesis down from 20,000 words to 14,000 words.
  • Teamwork. I did a number of group projects where I had to work with other people.
  • Public speaking. I gave numerous talks throughout my studies, culminating in a 20 minute talk on my honours project.
  • Subject matter expertise. I learnt all about geology, biology, ecology, biotechnology, environmental policy, physics and biochemistry.
Maybe those skills and attributes now make me worth $40,705 to Australia.

Affirmative: it was a waste of time and money
I did benefit from my degree. All of those skills are worthwhile. But I feel that getting a degree was a horrendously inefficient way to gain those skills. My degree focused on pumping me full of knowledge rather than turning me into someone who could meaningfully contribute to society. The skills I gained were mostly superficial and were largely a side effect of the learning process rather than the main objective of my degree.

I contend that I could have gained all of those skills in 1 year of focused attention. Instead of sitting in a lecture theatre with 100 people, getting talked at rather than learning, I could have learnt through experience and targeted feedback. I could have worked in a job that challenged me with real life, engaging scenarios instead of dull, worn examples from 20 years ago. I could have contributed meaningfully to society during my learning process instead of being a $40,705 drain on society.

What are the alternatives?
At my school (Melbourne High School), uni was the only acceptable pathway. There was enormous pressure to get a high year 12 mark so you could get into law or medicine or some such prestigious degree. I didn't see any other path.

Now, 4.5 years later, I see many paths I could have taken:
- straight into the workforce: After 4.5 years in a full time job, I am quite confident that I would have reached a management level position. I would have learnt a heap, applied it to real scenarios and earned quite a bit of money.
- apprenticeship: I could have done an apprenticeship in a trade. After 4.5 years, I could have become an accomplished bicycle mechanic. 
- volunteer: I could have spent my time volunteering. I would have gained all of the skills from university and made a positive societal impact.
- entrepreneur: I could have started my own business straight out of school. In 4.5 years, I would have gone through a lot of failure but am confident that I would have ended up with a thriving company.

What do these alternate paths require?
Courage and real time learning.

It would have taken a brave person to choose any of those alternate paths in my year at Melbourne High. A grand total of 2 people did an apprenticeship. 90% of the rest went straight into uni. I was not a brave person in year 12. My schooling taught me to be safe, not to take risks.

Real time learning
My university education was based on the idea that I had to spend 3-4 years learning something before I was capable of doing it in the workplace. The result of that education style is that I have forgotten everything I learnt at the start of the degree. Why? It's not useful to me anymore. That is a waste of time.

A far better model would be for me to learn something when I need it for a task. Modular skills workshops instead of protracted uni courses.

Apprenticeships for every profession
I believe academic education is wasted for the majority of people who don't want to become researchers. A better way would be to get people started in a job straight away. They would find out immediately whether they liked it and they'd learn skills they could use right away.

Why can't we have apprenticeships for every profession instead of just for tradespeople?

1 comment:

Tim Malone said...

Great summary of where your decisions lead you. I'm on the other side: I didn't go to uni. I didn't do an apprenticeship. I moreso did a hybrid of your business + workforce options. But it wasn't really a big decision: I hated school and really struggled with it, ended up leaving before I finished grade 10. So uni wasn't an option.

The thing I worry about is whether that is going to come back to bite me later, and whether there's things I could have/should have learned in uni that I could be using now.

I suspect I'll be fine, but it's still a niggling worry.