Improving the University Experience

So here’s the thing – I’m an academic who has to deal with the consequences of decisions that the government makes on the higher education system.

Decisions like this one: University students to undertake work experience as part of national strategy to boost their ‘job readiness’

Non-academics may not realise the consequences of such a decision. There are two primary concerns here:

  1. Most students work. This is because they have to pay rent, pay bills, and put food on the table. This takes up a considerable amount of their non-contact hours at university. Students work through the holidays in paid employment not only to cover their general living expenses, but to save money to pay for the following semester’s textbooks and course materials. If this “work experience” strategy becomes mandatory, most students could not afford to do it outside of their regular university schedule, as it would prevent them from doing the paid employment that is necessary just to pay their bills. Unless of course the work experience will be paid. Which I guarantee it won’t. Students already struggle to find unpaid work experience relevant to their field of study.
  2. If as a consequence of not being able to undertake this proposed mandatory work experience outside of the regular university schedule because they have to work, it would mean having to fit it in to the existing university schedule. The existing curriculum is already being squeezed as much as it can be to fit in the necessary core material for the degree. If this work experience has to be fit into the curriculum within the standard timetable, it means pushing something else out. This isn’t a good idea. I can be brutally honest here and say that industry is already complaining that undergraduates are coming out with insufficient knowledge. Not that they don’t have the necessary work experience, but that they’re missing fundamental knowledge relating to their area of study. And this is a consequence of having to cut out relevant material from the curriculum in order to make way for generic skills training and other “job readiness” training. All of that generic skills training and “work experience” is entirely useless if the graduates don’t have a sound understanding of their field of study in the first place. And making this “work experience” mandatory and being forced to fit it into the existing schedule, is simply going to exacerbate an already growing problem with curriculum squeeze.

So what do we do? We either have to require that students undertake the “work experience” outside of the regular university schedule, which will disadvantage the majority of students who require this time to undertake paid employment so that they can simply survive. Or we have to require that students undertake the “work experience” within the regular university schedule, which forces us to remove other core teaching material to make the time for it.

Neither is a good solution.

If this is to be made mandatory, then the government (and by proxy, the universities), must find a way to provide adequate financial support for the students to undertake their work experience.

Also, job readiness is important, I’m not denying that. But if there’s no jobs, then there’s no jobs. No amount of job readiness training is going to solve that. Job readiness training is a bandaid solution to a larger problem with the Australian job market.

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