Students should seize the day, not the decade

IT seems we in the West have sleepwalked into an entirely new type of human society. Most societies throughout history have had only a small number of old people, high infant mortality and a significantly younger population than ours.

We have known for a long time that the average age of the population is increasing, and we have made some attempts, such as compulsory superannuation, to deal with the associated costs. But the sheer magnitude of the amount of money needed in having so many old and fragile people has still to hit home.

So it is odd that we are also seeking to keep young people in education for a very long period of time, nearly 10 years longer than was the case 50 years ago.

The Gillard government wants 40 per cent of people aged between 25 and 34 to hold a bachelor's degree by 2025. To this end it uncapped the number of places universities could offer last year. But even before uncapping took place, enrolments were on the increase, with a 15.2 per cent increase in undergraduate acceptances between 2009 and 2012.

Another significant development of the past 10 years is the increased school leaving age. In most states it is now 17. Never before in human history have so many young people been held back from becoming adults for so long. It is all justified in terms of producing a much more educated workforce, and therefore a more productive economy. But there has been little critical thinking whether this is the right way to achieve that goal.

Noel Annan once wrote that Britain had planned to expand its universities by 4 per cent a year but it became too expensive. It is clear that expanding tertiary education and increasing the school leaving age were embarked upon here in a similar cavalier spirit, with little consideration of the costs involved.

We shall soon learn the consequences of living in a society of old people who have accumulated their wealth over a lifetime and naturally wish to protect it. And they wish to live for as long as possible.

It is also true the contemporary world differs from any other in history because it keeps young people in an immature state for such a long time. It is increasingly becoming the case that many young people will not embark on full-time work until their mid-20s.

The term "teen-ager" was invented during World War II. Its invention reflected the fact that young people were increasingly completing secondary education, rather than going out to work. But even as late as 1962, it was possible to leave school in Queensland at the age of 13. The teenage years were once ones of learning one's trade or occupation. Today they are years of extended schooling, of sitting in a classroom and preparing for the next stage of education.

As more and more young people move from school to university, the condition of dependence moves with them. A new term has been coined to describe this group in their early 20s as "emerging adults". Once a typical young person joined the workforce at age 14 or 15; they had to learn to grow up and participate in an adult world. Now they invariably continue in institutionalised study for perhaps another 10 years. They vote at a younger age than their forebears but accept responsibility at a much older age.

There is no doubt extending the time spent in schooling is quite expensive if undertaken in a serious and proper fashion.

The desire, no doubt, is to produce citizens who will be highly skilled and productive. They will need to be if they are to support a large group of young people who do not work full-time until their mid-20s and an ever-increasing group of retirees, many of whom, despite compulsory superannuation, will continue to receive the aged pension.

So will increasing the number of graduates generate such "super producers", able to carry the burden of supporting both young and old? The prognosis does not look good.

Recent international tests indicate Australia lags behind comparable countries in both reading and mathematics. If our schools cannot get it right in the younger years our universities cannot be expected to add the extra brilliance in these students' later years. Academics are not meant to be remedial English or mathematics teachers.

Simply having a goal that a certain percentage of the population should hold a degree is meaningless. Rather, there should be a goal that students reach a certain standard in their school years. Policy should focus on skills attainment, not the acquisition of a piece of paper by a certain proportion of the population.

Long years of study do not count for much if they do not lead to real demonstrable achievement. As a taxpayer who contributes to its cost, I want to see education that actually produces students who have attained high standards in English, mathematics, science and history. As an academic, I want to teach students who have mastered their basic skills and who wish to learn about complex and difficult things.

Universities cannot do their job if the schools have not done theirs. Ensuring schools enable students to achieve their potential should be the top education priority of any Australian government. And maybe, if schools have done their job properly, there will be students who do not need to go to university.

No real thought is given to the consequences of keeping young people in education for such an extended period of time, in effect institutionalising them from the ages of five to about 23. There is no doubt this extended educational experience moulds them in ways which may not be desirable.

For example, extended education weakens the entrepreneurial spirit. I was impressed some years ago to read the one thing young successful Australian entrepreneurs shared was not having gone to university.

Extended education is not about fostering flair or encouraging ingenuity or taking risks. It is about passing examinations and learning how to do things in an academic fashion. It does not encourage rule breakers. Despite their radical reputation, universities are full of quite conservative people who are used to following rules and who hate radical change when it affects them. In a similar way universities train students so that they are socialised into patterns of behaviour which are quite conservative. Universities train people who will become bureaucrats, not entrepreneurs.

This brings me back to the brave new world into which Western countries like Australia are transmuting. They will possess a large aged population which will become increasingly expensive to support. As they grow older they will require institutions to look after them.

They will also have a large group of young people who will spend an excessive part of their life in educational institutions. If current trends are correct, the quality of that education will not be high but it will be quite expensive.

In between there will be the group who will have to make the money required to support those over 65 and those under 25. It does not require much imagination to foresee inadequate funding for either of these groups. Both education and aged care will be done on the cheap.

The combined effect of an aged population and extended institutional education will be to produce a conservative social order that will seek to preserve established interests and which may lose the capacity for initiative. It may have no will for change.

There is little we can do about the ageing of our population. But we shall have to deal with its consequences. There is something we can do about the ever-increasing time that we expect our young people to spend in educational institutions. Will it extend until they turn 30? Will there be another category, "nearly adult", after "emerging adult"?

There needs to be a much greater emphasis on making education more effective rather than simply extending the time spent in educational institutions. We need better and smarter education, not more of the same. Young people should not be kept in a cocoon of immaturity. As American sociologist Christian Smith has written, there is indeed a "dark side of emerging adulthood".

We can continue sleepwalking or we can try to think about the sorts of changes that are occurring in our world, changes that have no precedent in human history. It is not too late.

Greg Melleuish's new book on Australian democracy will be published by Australian Scholarly Publishing this year.