OPINION: Earlier this month I heard the University of Technology chancellor and world-renowned endocrinologist, Vicki Sara, give the address at a selective school prefect induction. Her message to the students was clear: you are bright and talented, you are privileged to be in a position to make real choices about your life, make sure you use that privilege to choose to work in an area you are passionate about.
It was an important message that needs to be heard by all 70,000 students sitting for their HSC this month. So many of these capable young people are whipped into a frenzy by their parents and peers, convinced that if they do not get the highest Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) possible, they will never get into the right course, at the right university, get a job and so their lives will be a failure. Ironically, it is often the brightest, most capable students, those objectively least likely to fail, who are convinced they are teetering on the edge of unemployment.
As a result, when they choose their university degree, they do not do what Professor Sara advises and choose an area that excites their intellect; they select a degree that they (or their parents) think will guarantee them a job. Combined commerce-law is a prime target. Never mind that they have absolutely no interest in law or accounting, or that they love science, engineering, graphic art or pure maths. The subjects they are interested in and have shown a talent for are often not part of the decision.
It is astounding that as a community we tolerate this waste of talent. While a research scientist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sara isolated the growth factor responsible for regulating foetal brain development. There may have been several young Saras listening to her address, who love science and are capable of similar achievements, but if they miss out on medicine, will succumb to the pressure to do the "next best thing": commerce-law. Instead of carrying on vital scientific research, their greatest career achievement might be balancing the books or filing Australian Securities and Investments Commission forms for a large corporation.
All you bright young things sitting the HSC should know that Australia is not like other countries where thousands of students compete for an impossibly small number of university places. Every year there are great degrees in good universities that do not fill their quotas. Contrary to popular belief, straight arts and science degrees are not a springboard for unemployment. They can lead to a host of fantastic careers: biotechnology, consulting, mining, IT, journalism, psychology, teaching and academia to name a few. They have ATARs 15 or 20 points below other courses that are no more intellectually challenging. The bottlenecks that exist for courses like law, physiotherapy and commerce are created by excessive demand, ironically from large numbers of students who, if pressed, would admit they do not really want to do the degree or work in the area for which it will train them.
Some of the bottlenecks are a result of universities creating "marketable" labels for degrees that students, their families and possibly employers seem to find more prestigious than traditional labels. The traditional ''straight'' degree still exists, and allows students to do exactly the same subjects, attain an identical education, with a significantly lower ATAR, than some of the more fashionable degrees. The discrepancies between courses have no academic basis; a science degree should not have an ATAR 15 points below commerce, nor should aeronautical engineering be 10 points below law.
By creating a flawed hierarchy of degrees and universities, students and their families are unwittingly the architects of their own misery. While it is difficult for teenagers to know what they want to do with their rest of their lives, if they used their own interest and talent as a guide, they would better spread themselves across universities and courses, thereby greatly reducing competition for certain degrees.
Although we are entering harder economic times, Australia is still a lucky country. We are affluent, we have a good public education system, and the vast majority of our young people will never know unemployment. There is a huge range of professions they can enter that will give them a decent income and meaningful work. The greater their interest in and aptitude for an area, the more likely they are to excel, to the benefit of themselves and their community. Training people in disciplines they have no aptitude for or interest in is a waste of public money and countless professional lives.
Cathy Sherry is a Senior Lecturer in UNSW's Faculty of Law.
This opinion piece first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.