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Australia’s Education Caste System


How often have you been asked Which high school did you attend? or Which university did you study at? Why is it that our initial inquiries are so often focused on the where and not the what? And how often has your reply elicited a response of approval, indifference or even disdain?

For many people, the school or university they attend is very important. University reputation is often a prominent consideration for students finishing high school in Australia, and in some cases it can even impact upon future employment prospects. For many high school graduates, university prestige and not quality of degree programs will determine study choices, and unless students want to learn a trade, almost always their first preference for study will be a university rather than a TAFE.

Why is this? Why is reputation seemingly more important than quality? It shouldn’t matter. Not one iota.

I’m in the interesting position this year of delivering two similar communications subjects, both within degree programs. One is run through a university, the other through a TAFE. Curiously, the TAFE subject challenges students’ higher order cognitive skills more so than the university subject. This is due in part to the choice of textbooks for each as well as the nature of assessment tasks (neither of which I had much say in). I expected the university subject to be more challenging for students, but I’ve found the opposite to be true.

This snapshot comparison of my two classes represents a broader reality within the tertiary sector, a reality that opposes the stereotypes belonging to what I’m calling our education caste system. This caste system exists in every facet of education, from private and public school rivalry, to socio-economic difference, to school subject hierarchy, to level of education achieved – the list is endless. For now, though, I’ll focus on the tertiary sector, specifically universities and TAFEs.

Generally, TAFEs are reputed to offer watered-down versions of university courses. In reality, TAFE graduates are often significantly more job-ready than their university counterparts. Why? Simply put, the TAFE system delivers practical application of skills in tandem with theoretical knowledge. Traditionally, universities tend to present theoretical knowledge alone, though many are introducing more applied learning subjects because purely theory-focused qualifications are next to useless in this day and age.

In Australia, we have a qualifications framework:

Image source

In the above diagram, education levels are numbered according to their place in the framework. The circle gives the appearance of a continuum, with each level granted an equal amount of space to the others. This is a nice idea in theory, but in reality, we’ve constructed an education caste system that more closely resembles an oligarchy than a democracy. To borrow a line from Orwell, all degrees are equal, but some are more equal than others.

As a society, we have a deeply ingrained sense of educational status that thrives on stereotypes and subtle encouragements, such as the influence of parent or sibling successes (or lack thereof), the assumption that a university’s prestige equates to a higher quality of education, or the myth that certain career choices guarantee financial security. Education should be accepted as being an opportunity and individual choice. Instead, it is often used to determine societal or professional rank.

The view that education is linked to status is reinforced not only through society’s valuation of educators (a view perpetuated in no small measure by government policy as well as teaching salaries relative to other industries), but also through gender bias (the majority of senior lecturers in Australian universities are men, while the majority of educators in other areas such as primary teaching are women – the latter of whom work just as many hours and receive significantly less remuneration).

Disappointingly, educators themselves are complicit in reinforcing the education caste system. Last November, I attended a tertiary education conference where many experts presented their ideas on the future of tertiary education. Of every speaker I heard, only two presented papers that took students’ perspectives into account. Everyone else discussed pedagogy and the challenges of working within a tertiary system. Most surprising to me, however, was the prejudicial stirrings that manifested in delegates when they met people from institutions they considered to be inferior. A couple of people literally looked down their noses at their colleagues. Even within the highest education echelons – especially within these echelons –  the education caste system is glaringly apparent.

University lecturers tend to fall into two main categories: those who are predominantly interested in research, and those who are interested in both research and teaching. For the researcher types, teaching is an aspect of the job, and not their primary function. The teacher types are the ones who are not only passionate about their subject, but who are also adept at passing on this knowledge to students.

Not all university lecturers are trained teachers, though. This is partly due to the fact that mandatory teacher training has not yet been implemented throughout the tertiary sector. The more forward-thinking institutions insist that their educators obtain teaching qualifications in addition to a Masters or PhD (ranked numbers 9 and 10 in the framework). The minimum tertiary teaching qualification – mandatory for TAFE teachers – is a Certificate IV (number 4 in the framework). I’ve met more than a few university lecturers who consider teaching qualifications to be beneath them. Happily, this is a minority-held prejudice, predominantly seen in older, traditional thinkers, most of whom are men, but I’ve met some women who share this view.

What these particular lecturers fail to understand is that their lack of teacher training can have a significant impact upon student learning. I know this because I teach. I know this because I have studied under such lecturers. I know this because I have experienced it myself.

Lecturers who are not trained in assessment are frequently unable to write clear assignment outlines. This is confusing for students, especially when their interpretation of an assessment task differs from that of their lecturer. If lecturers fail to understand the links between task descriptions and scope, marking criteria, and final percentages, if they fail to take student perspective into account, then they are effectively ignoring the learning outcomes, making students feel they have done an inordinate amount of work for very little gain. This is irresponsible teaching practice.

Many highly knowledgeable lecturers could become better – even exceptional – educators with just a little bit of training. And it’s really not hard. Teaching isn’t rocket science – anyone can be taught the necessary skills, provided they are willing to learn. Unfortunately, there still exists within the university sector a conservative, influential faction that remains doggedly unwilling to learn these skills, often due to a perception that their professional status will be diminished if they flirt with such lowly qualifications. This view not only reveals the existence of intellectual division; it also asserts that these divisions are professionally necessary. This is contrary to the very principles of learning and teaching. Until these top level factions – not to mention the government, the opposition, and others who believe in educational status – can be encouraged to shift their thinking, the education caste system will continue to ferment.

Like all illusions, the education caste system only exists because people believe it’s there. Reputation can certainly define us – often detrimentally so – but it too is just an illusion. We need to learn to look beyond the dazzle of prestige and begin valuing education for its quality and continuing usefulness rather than its glossy exterior. Our experiences, the choices we make, and the values we uphold are what carve us out as individuals. These are the true definition of character, and the ultimate measure of success.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. stu permalink
    04.03.2012 7:08 PM

    Beee careful, this type of insightful analysis could make you end up in politics. A worse senario than being a sports star, film celeb of a crim. Stu

    • 04.03.2012 7:17 PM

      Haha! I know. I once wanted to get onto the curriculum board so I could reform the English curriculum. Now when I think about the paperwork that job would involve, my head hurts.

      You don’t need to worry about me ending up in politics – I’m not a natural administrator.

  2. 21.03.2012 1:09 PM

    When Harold Wyndham formulated what became known as The Wyndham Scheme (introduced into the NSW secondary system in 1962) it was his intention to break exactly this caste system. It was his belief that the inequality of equal pigs was unacceptable, and the Scheme was designed to give equal value to the widest possible range of abilities by introducing the School Certificate at the end of Year 10 (the fourth year of secondary school). This was to be the major examination, giving all students a meaningful qualification. Those with no academic inclination could then look to an improved system of trade and professional studies to pursue their particular talents.
    ‘Since then changing social expectations and political priorities have undermined Wyndham’s ideal of the public comprehensive school based on local neighbourhoods.’ ( )
    The political priority mentioned here was cynical sleight of hand in which students were encouraged to remain at school through to Year 12 on the basis that everyone was entitled to a university education. The fact was that keeping young people out of the workforce was made the unemployment figures look better. The result was that political, social and parental pressure was applied to many young people who would have been far happier and more productive elsewhere, to go on to further education that was of no interest and would not provide them with the skills they needed to pursue careers in line with their abilities. The Wyndham scheme failed to achieve its purpose, a university degree became the only ‘real’ qualification and alternative tertiary systems became poor relations. Politics has a lot to answer for.

    • 21.03.2012 2:35 PM

      That’s a really interesting comment, Helen. My understanding of our education caste system (and subsequently my writings for this post) stem primarily from my own contemporary experiences. It’s great to have a little history to check out. I’ll definitely read this article.

      I completely agree with you on the subject of politics. I think the same expectations for tertiary educators could arguably be applied to administrative positions within state and federal government education departments. Imagine that – an education minister who is required to have experience as a teacher. It happens in other industries, e.g. many large publishing houses now require their publishers of educational material to have a Dip Ed and two years’ teaching experience.

      Then there’s the problem of education inflation, which you have alluded to here. A degree 30 years ago meant you had a job. A degree today means you have to think about the direction of your postgraduate studies. And then you might be lucky to get a job. Depending, of course, on which university you choose for your Masters.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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