Should education just be about the money you can make?

Before you say it, Betteridge’s law applies. Now, onto my musings…

There’s an article up at the ABC right now that examines a study into the income outcomes of tertiary study versus vocational study. It’s an interesting read, and without access to the underlying study figures, I can’t say I absolutely fault its numerical conclusions.

But I still have problems with it, and they relate to the central thesis that education should simply be about economic outcomes with no other considerations whatsoever.

For a start, they ignore the personal issues at play here. Anecdotally (yes, it’s the worst kind of data, move on), I can point to one friend who was a highly skilled writer and editor, and re-trained as a carpenter. Or another who went from working in an abattoir to training as a secondary school teacher. I’ve interviewed a professional wrestler who got his start crimping network cables for an anti-virus company. People get about in their careers, and not always in the ways you might expect.

Indeed, the current estimated average for young Australians is that they’ll have five different careers over their lives. Did they shift for the money? Not always.

What does that point to? It points to a need for more education, not a rigid “you should do a trade, because that’s where the money is” kind of thinking.

The odds seem pretty good that you’re going to juggle multiple jobs in your lifetime. I’ve (variously) worked as an admin assistant for a builder, doing phone-based tech support for a now-defunct computer retailer — the defunct bit isn’t my fault, I swear — and then as a technology journalist.

Even within that trade, which has been my core method of making money for more than 2 decades, I’ve juggled writing, editing, photography, videography, management and more as “roles” within that space.

I’ve done tertiary study both at University and TAFE (and even worked disastrously for a private educator, and the less said there the better) and learned different things each time.

I’m currently learning Japanese at tertiary level, and that has absolutely nothing to do with my current career work. I’m still learning more about 日本語 than I expected, and more about myself as a result.

There’s a dearth of investment in the public education sector, which is also a political viewpoint argument, but it’s one that’s potentially robbing folks of the educational pathways they could get to.

Moreover, though, I’m not comfortable with the idea that education is just about the money.

It simply isn’t, or shouldn’t be. If that’s true, we should probably all just retrain as coders and build the next Google or Facebook, because that’s clearly where the money lies. Those companies are raking in the cash, so that’s what you should do, right?

Taking that thinking to its logical conclusion will rob us of the next generation of great Australian poets, painters, actors and writers (yes, I have a bias). Oh yeah, and sports goes by the way too, because the percentage of folks who make a “living” for that relative to the investment is going to be frighteningly low.

At the same time, we’ll lose scientists, because a lot of scientific research takes time and money that isn’t immediately apparent on a simple profit and loss sheet. Which means we also lose out on the value of R&D that could lead to new career paths for plenty of folks down the track.

Education of any type, whether it’s self-led, at a TAFE, at a University or whatever can change the type of person that you are.

It opens not only doorways to new career paths, but also ways to see the world around you, no matter whether you’re learning to hammer a nail or conjugate a verb.

I’m certainly not arguing that university is for everyone — it isn’t and shouldn’t be — but reducing it to “what kind of money can I make” robs it of so much value that can’t be summed up in dollar terms.

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