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Credentialism high

By Brian Holden - posted Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Once upon a time, for the bright and ambitious, there was only one rule: Get noticed! Those who did made a good living. Those boys who left school at age 14 and who were bright and ambitious are largely responsible for the existence of the grand old houses in the prestigious suburbs in our cities today.

That was the time when only a small fraction of school students went on to university. It was a time when almost everybody learned on the job. Today, I don't know of any child entering high school who does not envisage moving onto university. I can understand my father 60 years ago wanting me to aim at university, but after accepting a quote which I discovered after the job was done that I paid my plumber $300 an hour, I now know that times have certainly changed for the once humble tradesman.

In grandfather's day, employers in almost every field of endeavour took on teenagers, nurtured them and then put them in the appropriate pigeon holes within the business. So, who or what is responsible for convincing us that learning on the job was no longer good enough and that you had to spend three or more years to get the right theoretical background?


There would be multiple causes - and I can identify one of them. In the 1970s emerged the CAEs (Colleges of Advanced Education). Once there, they had to justify their existence. As a laboratory manager I witnessed how one CAE (now turned university) invented a 'suitable' degree to enable pathology technicians to become 'medical laboratory scientists'.

The old technicians' certificate was of a low academic standard and cost almost nothing to get. The new university used the old curriculum as a frame and then padded it with intellectually demanding subjects - regardless of their practical relevance.

The pathologists (these are medical specialists who direct the laboratories) could see no need for any of this. To them the most valuable technical staff were those who could organise the workflow and think on their feet under pressure. Now that all the technical staff have degrees, where once the pathologists were supported by people with technical certificates who were smart and those who were not, now the pathologists are supported by Bachelors of Applied Science who are smart and those who are not.

The same level of talent and potential talent is there now as there was in the past. The difference is that, at significant personal cost in time and money, the degree hurdle has to be jumped before getting access to a technical job in pathology to perform work that is now largely feeding specimens into an automated analyzer. The same hurdle has to be jumped to gain access to all registered nursing and most administrative jobs of consequence in the public health system.

This is humbug! Each day a nurse with a degree asks herself the same question Florence Nightingale asked herself: "How do I get through this workload?" How is it that our great journalists and architects and musicians of the past achieve what they did without a degree?

The economy is not generating the demand for university graduates. The culture within the school educational system is creating the image of a university degree in the heads of our children as the document which defines you as being somebody. Up until 1949, New South Wales had only one university. Today there are 11. The biggest have over 45,000 students.


With so many graduates, now an applicant for a white-collar job who has no degree would struggle to get an interview. With so many graduates, a person without a degree is being made to feel to be a dummy.

There is even a Catholic university. Is there a Catholic style of teaching economics or classical literature? This is clear evidence that the symbolism of the university degree, generally, has become the driver rather than what the economy needs - because it seems that a Catholic university just has to be there for its own symbolic sake.

But, there seems to be a realty-check in the making. The University of New South Wales is discarding 50,000 books a yearto make way for students to plug-in laptops in café-style lounges. So, we have students of that university depending on someone somewhere in cyberspace having the information they seek. It matters not that the information might be in a book somewhere in that very building. It is easier to look in cyberspace.

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About the Author

Brian Holden has been retired since 1988. He advises that if you can keep physically and mentally active, retirement can be the best time of your life.

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