From Industrial Relations to Personal Relations:
The Coercion of Society

Education and Employment

Dr Ken Baker

I had considered sub-titling this paper 'Why H R Nicholls was right to pillory Henry Higgins'. Then I discovered that the Henry Higgins so disliked by H R Nicholls was Justice Henry Bournes Higgins, the 'father' of Arbitration, and not the Professor 'Enry 'Iggins in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (filmed as My Fair Lady). That Henry Higgins transformed a young woman productively employed selling flowers into a lady of leisure whose social circle's concept of productivity was backing a 'sure thing' at the racetrack.

At least Shaw's Higgins believed in high standards of English. His modern Australian counterpart would have poor Eliza enrolled in a course in the sociology of flower arranging, an example not as far-fetched as it might first sound.

The mention of horse racing and of Higgins---I'm now thinking of Roy, not Henry---suggests an even more apt sub-title: 'Horses for Courses'. Giving the young the opportunity to develop their potential, which is a central task of education, means catering for diverse abilities and proclivities, not trying to squeeze everyone into the same mould.

In Australia the bridges between education and employment are precarious; too many of the young people who try to cross them are ill-equipped to do so and plunge into the pool of unemployed below. Too many are trying to cross on the same narrow bridge. To prepare the young better for the passage to employment we need to understand better the complex, indirect and sometimes inverse relationship between education and employment.

The Growth Myth

Let us first dispose of one prevailing myth: that educational expansion necessarily yields economic and therefore employment growth.

For a long time Australian governments have been drunk on the belief that, in education, more is better. Unsure of the quality of education received by young Australians, governments have boasted about the quantity: the increased retention rate of students to Year 12, which doubled in the last decade; the doubling of enrolments in higher education institutions between 1975 and 1991; the increased expenditure per primary and secondary student, which during the 1980s grew in real terms by 35 per cent. To believe that the quantity of education or the quantity of spending on it are reliable guides to its quality is no more sensible than judging a book on the number pages it contains and its cover price.

To find evidence that more is not necessarily better in education we need only examine our own recent past. Between 1968-69 and 1990-91 in Australia the proportion of the full-time workforce with post-school qualifications doubled (it rose from 24.6 per cent to 52.2 per cent; those with degrees increased from 3.2 per cent to 12.7 per cent over the same period). The rate of increase in labour productivity---as measured by changes in real GDP per person employed---over the same years actually declined---from an annual average of around 2.7 per cent in the 1960s to 1.3 per cent in the 1980s.

International comparisons give no more comfort to the educational expansionists. In the early 1980s 19 per cent of the American workforce held degrees, compared to 13 per cent of the Japanese workforce; yet economic growth in the latter far exceeded the former. Nor is there a correlation between spending on education and productivity. One could take any one of a number of other quantitative measures of educational growth and still not demonstrate general economic benefits.1

We cannot conclude from this evidence (or lack of evidence) that education yields no general economic benefits. But we can conclude that the quantity of education received by the workforce is far less important than the quality. What matters is not how much money is spent on education, but how it is spent; not the proportion of the workforce who gain a post-school qualification, but what they are taught along the way.

Education cannot solve Australia's high unemployment, but it can make people more employable. How well is it doing this?

The effort to boost vocational education and training has not been entirely fruitless. It has, for example, given rise to a plethora of government reports, programs, committees and agencies. For a sample refer to Appendix D in the 1992 Carmichael Report.2 There you will find:-

ACTRAC (The Australian Committee for Training Curriculum),
AVETS (The Australian Vocational Education and Training System),
WEETAG (Women's Employment, Education and Training Authority),
VEETAC (Vocational Education, Employment and Training Advisory Committee),
COSTAC (Commonwealth/State Training Advisory Committee),
NBEET (The National Board for Employment, Education and Training),

and 24 other acronyms.

While it is too early to write off the efforts of these and other programs and committees to lift vocational training, it is worth recording the score to date: between 1983 and 1993 the proportion of 15 to 19 year-olds involved in some form of vocational preparation---an apprenticeship, a full- or part-time TAFE course, or a similar course in a private college---increased by almost an entire percentage point, from 13.1 per cent to 13.9 per cent: hardly an impressive result, and one that lags far behind the trend in most OECD countries and the fast-growth economies of East Asia.3

What did increase markedly over the decade were the numbers of young people staying on at school and gaining places in higher education, the demand for which annually far exceeds the supply.

Entering university has become the logical step after completing the VCE or HSC. The closure of the technical schools and of alternative Year 11 and Year 12 certificates is effectively channelling students towards university. There are also the obvious economic incentives: most of the costs of higher education are borne by the taxpayer, and a degree-holder commands higher earnings than an early school leaver, although as higher education expands this advantage is eroding.

But even more important in guiding career choices is culture. In our culture the professions command more prestige than commerce and the trades. A typical pattern of social mobility sees the sons and daughters of successful, often self-made businessmen urged to pursue careers in the professions, particularly law or medicine. The underlying sentiment is similar to that expressed last century by Stendhal: businessmen, he conceded, had certainly made France wealthier and were on the whole good, honest men, but they were not admirable men, like architects or doctors or lawyers.4 The career advice students receive at schools often reflects the same prejudice: a career in business is for those incapable of succeeding in the professions.

Let me mention a case from my own experience which illustrates the problem. It concerns the daughter of a British immigrant who had arrived in Australia 40 years ago with very little, but had applied his considerable entrepreneurial skills to building up a sizeable fortune selling cars. His daughter had inherited his acumen---she supported herself for a time buying and selling jewellery---but her real quest, being the daughter of an immigrant used-car salesman, was for social status, and the path to that was via a university degree in some field of study as far removed from the tackiness of trade as possible. She chose anthropology. She was not an outstanding student and became a third-rate anthropologist, when she could have been a first-rate business woman. The study of anthropology, moreover, proved to be remarkably effective at suppressing her entrepreneurial instincts. Entrepreneurs, she soon learned, were not engines of prosperity; they were bearers of destruction to the world's indigenous peoples. No decent person would want to be that.

This case, I think, encapsulates the problem of too much education of the wrong sort. But if we are considering the economic effects of education it poses an important question. The practice of law, medicine and even anthropology are noble pursuits. But it is by no means self-evident that lawyers, doctors and anthropologists contribute more to society than businessmen. For one thing, the largest employers of university graduates are governments. It could thus be said that educational expansion, funded by government, has fed government expansion which in turn has retarded the growth of national productivity.5

This argument can be widened to suggest that beyond a certain point, which America almost certainly has reached and Japan almost certainly has not, the number of lawyers per 100,000 population is inversely related to the rate of economic growth. The more lawyers, the more litigation; the more litigation, the less prepared entrepreneurs are to take the risks involved in developing new products and new sources of profit and employment.

In these ways the rapid expansion of university education can actually damage our prosperity as a nation.

Plumbers and Philosophers

Plato's ideal of a just society was one in which all people were able to exercise their potential. The potential of some lay in plumbing, that of others in philosophy. For a plumber to have to practise philosophy or a philosopher plumbing is not just; nor, I might add, is it efficient. The education system should help us recognize and realize our particular potentials. Mao's Cultural Revolution sent philosophers into the fields to gather the harvest; ours, in the name of professionalization, sends nurses to university to study sociology. I doubt that the patients are the beneficiaries.6

Our latter-day Henry Higginses, like their fictional forbear, have no regard for the integrity of the trades. The Report of The Committee to Review Australian Studies in Tertiary Education, established a few years ago by the Federal Education Minister, is illustrative. The Committee, of which Humphrey McQueen was a member, took upon itself the task of adding some class---some New Class---to the training of hairdressers. The Report explained what the Committee had in mind:

"The project on hairdressing and Australian Studies began with the idea of constructing a teaching program which would use hairdressing to open a window onto Australia and its place in the world. The aim of the program would be to use literature, history, commerce, sociology, economics not only to expand the general knowledge of hairdressing students but to enhance their skills as hairdressers ... Students could begin with the various ways in which Aboriginal peoples treated their body hair. Shorn skulls of male convicts would next be contrasted with the bewigged heads of the regimental officers as an illustration of social classes. The shaving of convict women's heads as a punishment could introduce a discussion of women's self-esteem... The cutting of pigtails by diggers on the goldfields would introduce students to one aspect of the treatment of the Chinese and to broader questions relating to multiculturalism and racism. 'Short-back-and-sides' could lead into a discussion of the Western front during the Great European war, and onto images of masculinity".7

Behind this attempt to produce sociologically sophisticated hairdressers is a thinly-disguised scorn for the craft and those who practise it. Not admirable in themselves, hairdressers should become social critics as well.

Is there a better model of training? Although the apprenticeship system as it evolved in Australia has flaws, among them its inflexibility, the basic master-apprentice model of vocational training is, in my view, the best one. Training is on the job, supervised by a master craftsman and supplemented by formal classes taught by people with expertise in their craft. It seems to me that even teachers would learn their craft best in this fashion. And in the classroom they would recognize their suitability or lack of suitability for teaching far quicker than in a university course studying the theory of teaching. The same applies to nurses, social workers, policemen and several other occupations.

But with close to 80 per cent of teenagers staying at school until the end of Year 12, most school leavers now enter the workforce two years older than the average a decade ago. This, as Richard Sweet has written, means that employers have to pay roughly $4,000 more for inexperience than they did a decade ago. As a consequence, the number of apprentices and trainees, as a proportion of the workforce, is now at the lowest point for a quarter of a century.8


So far I have discussed only the post-compulsory years in education: yet it is in the primary and early secondary years of schooling when the foundations of all later learning are built. If those foundations are weak, the training and education built on them will be weak. In the official thinking and policies aimed at strengthening the links between education and employment, primary and early secondary schooling have been almost totally neglected.

Almost 30 per cent of Australian employers of university graduates think that the written communication of graduates is poor.9 This is not the fault of our universities, except in as much as the inability to communicate apparently does not disqualify a student from graduation (and certainly seems to be no barrier to publishing in academic journals). Poor literacy is a failure of primary education. In early 1993, a House of Representatives Standing Committee reported that up to 25 per cent of our children leave primary school with a literacy problem.10

The inexplicable dominance of the so-called whole-word method of learning to read---which involves children guessing words from their context rather than sounding them out---and the decline of the teaching of grammar, absent from our schools now for almost a generation, are deeply implicated in this; although I am pleased to report that grammar is being revived in New South Wales.11 The NSW Teachers' Federation was quick to follow up the announcement of grammar's return to the curriculum with a call for a large sum of money to be allocated to in-service training so that the State's teachers could learn how to teach grammar. This is a bit like learning that the surgeon about to operate on you never actually studied anatomy.


Science fares no better. It remains, according to the Commonwealth Schools Council, "a low priority" in most primary schools. In Victoria in 1991 an average of only four per cent of classroom time in primary schools was spent on science.12 Amongst the reasons for this, identified in a Schools Council report, is the lack of scientific knowledge of the teachers themselves.13

No wonder that in an Australia-wide survey of 12 year-olds 41 per cent of responses to the question 'Why does it rain?' showed no inkling of a scientific understanding.14 It rains "to water the garden", or "because the clouds bang together" or they "sneeze" were typical responses. While a majority of pupils questioned in the survey were favourably disposed towards science, a sizeable minority were not: almost one in three agreed with the blanket statement "Science is the cause of most of our environmental problems" and one in four extended science's culpability to include "most of the world's problems". This combination of cynicism and ignorance does not auger well for industries hoping to recruit scientifically literate employees.

Nor do the attempts to develop a national curriculum in science auger well. The Australian Academy of Science rightly criticized the draft curriculum for its subordination of science to politically-correct sociology. Scientific knowledge and skills, it argued, were being downgraded and the disciplines of science displaced by social and political agendas concerned with issues such as ethnic and gender bias.15

All this contrasts with the practices of some of our major competitors. Japanese pupils perform markedly better on science tests than Australian pupils, for example.

A sound grounding in basic science does seem to be linked to productivity in industry. A series of studies comparing industry in Britain, Germany, Japan and France suggests that when the average student is competent in basic science and mathematics (and receives strong vocational training when he enters the workforce) productivity gains attributable to education and training are greatest.16

Work Ethic

When, in 1989, Victorian employers were asked what they most valued in young prospective employees, among the essential skills and qualities they mentioned were positive attitudes to work.17 Preparing young people for employment means not only teaching the right knowledge and skills but fostering the right values and attitudes: diligence, perseverance, personal responsibility, self-discipline, punctuality, a willingness to learn, respect for authority. The traditional emphasis on character formation in schools is thus pertinent to employment; the decline of that emphasis, I believe, has weakened the employability of school leavers. Nowhere does the series of reports which have underpinned the vocationally-oriented competencies movement recognize this.

The original sense of vocation or calling, meaning a divine summons to work, still resonates at an unconscious level in our culture. We may not any longer accept that in our chosen vocation we serve God, but in the pride we take in our work, in the disquiet we feel when unemployed (which goes beyond economic insecurity), in the distinction which we maintain between work and labour, and in our concern for business and professional ethics, we preserve something of the original meaning of vocation. But its influence is weakening and needs to be bolstered in our schools and homes. Increasingly in Australian society the cure for doubt and anxiety - although it is really no cure at all---is consumption rather than hard work.

Part of what is wrong in education is that the sense of teaching as a calling has collapsed for a significant minority of teachers. The fact that the interests of the profession have been reduced by the major teacher unions to a set of factory conditions---work loads, class sizes, industrial democracy---reflects an impoverished view of what ought to be defended by the unions as a noble calling. Teaching is inherently demanding; but it only becomes the gruelling, stressful labour depicted by the teacher unions when vocation fails.

This point is not incidental, for the work ethic is taught best through example. For students to be inspired, their teacher must be inspired. From an inspired teacher they learn the meaning of vocation; from an uninspired one they learn one of the most destructive lessons of all: that work is mere drudgery.

How is the work ethic to be taught? Not by introducing students to the sociology of work (this essentially was the approach of the Victorian Certificate of Education's Australian Studies); still less by Values Clarification, which subjects students' moral beliefs to a corrosive scepticism. No, ideally a productive ethic should be woven through the whole of a school's life: in the example set by its teachers in the classroom, in the conduct on its sport's field, in its textbooks and in its rituals.

A compelling lesson in fostering the work ethic is presented in the American film Stand and Deliver. The film recounts the true story of how mathematician Jaime Escalante transformed a class of poor, unruly Hispanic teenagers into highly-motivated, hard-working scholarship winners. He did so by rejecting the fatalism which often dominates discussions of educational disadvantage. The more Escalante expected of his students, the more they expected of themselves. To make up for lost ground his students worked extra hours at weekends and through their summer vacation; they were regularly tested and were actively engaged by Escalante in learning and problem-solving; they signed binding contracts agreeing to work and to arrive at class punctually (breaking these contracts resulted in eviction from the classroom) and they undertook a serious and challenging subject, calculus. In learning that subject they imbibed the virtues of diligence, perseverance, punctuality and personal responsibility. Moreover, Escalante dismissed and ultimately discredited the pleas of his colleagues that his students could not achieve until their socio-economic circumstances were remedied.

In an article on the student rebellions of the late 1960s American psychoanalyst Bruno Bettleheim argued that the expansion of higher education had delayed the transition to adulthood for many young people. By extending their adolescence and the taking on of adult responsibilities education had contributed, Bettleheim said, to the behaviour disorder called the student movement.18

This argument is not applicable to all students, but it is true for some. Joining the workforce is a rite of passage to adulthood: to defer it unnecessarily can simply delay resolution of the identity problems associated with adolescence. Many young people would learn best by practical, on-the-job training, in an environment conducive to taking work and its attendant responsibilities seriously, supplemented, where necessary, by formal classes. These young people need effective school-to-work programs, of which there are few in Australia, and alternative certification at Year 12 and earlier levels. Extended formal education for this group teaches only the art of filling in time.


1. Leo Maglen, 'Assessing the Economic Value of Education Expansion: A preliminary Review of the Issues and Evidence', in Education Issues, EPAC Background Paper No. 27, AGPS, June 1993.

2. National Board of Employment, Education and Training, The Australian Vocational Certificate Training System, Canberra, March 1992.

3. Richard Sweet, 'Why so few young Australians are learning to work', IPA Review, Vol. 47 No. 2, 1994.

4. Cesar Grana, Modernity and its Discontents: French Society and the French Man of Letters in the Nineteenth Century, Harper and Row, New York, 1967, p. 97

5. Ross Parish, 'Do We Need More Graduates?', IPA Review, Vol.42 No. 3, 1989.

6. Ken Baker, Nursing Training and the Social Sciences Curriculum, Institute of Public Affairs, Education Policy Unit, Paper No. 7, September 1988.

7. Committee to Review Australian Studies in Tertiary Education, Windows onto Worlds: Studying Australia at Tertiary Level, Canberra, AGPS, June 1987.

8. Richard Sweet, op. cit.

9. Australian Association of Graduate Employers Limited, National Survey of Graduate Employers, November 1993.

10. House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training, The Literacy Challenge, February 1993.

11. On the whole word method see Byron Harrison and Jean Zollner, 'Teaching Reading', Education Monitor, Autumn 1993. On the revival of grammar see Donna Gibbs, 'Teaching Grammar in the 90s', Education Monitor, Autumn 1994.

12. Victorian State Board of Education, Curriculum Provision, 1991.

13. National Board of Employment, Education and Training, Five to Fifteen: Reviewing the Compulsory Years of Schooling, Canberra, AGPS, 1992.

14. National Board of Employment, Education and Training, What Do They Know?, Canberra, April 1993.

15. 'Uproar over New Plan for Science', The Age, 27 May 1992.

16. Leo Maglen, op. cit.

17. Employers' Education Consortium of Victoria, Education and Industry: Developing a Partnership. A Report on Employers' Views of the Victorian Education System, March 1989.

18. Bruno Bettleheim, 'Obsolete Youth', Encounter, Vol. 33 No. 3, September 1969.