Like all great debates there seems to be two irreconcilable sides to the great education question of “Should I go to university?”. On the one side there’s the drive from parents, many of whom grew up in times where tertiary education was a precious resource, who want to give their children the very best chance at getting somewhere in live. On the other side is the self-taught movement, a growing swell of people who’ve eschewed the traditional progression of education and have done quite well. This in turn raises the question of whether further education is a necessity in today’s society or whether it’s all a giant waste of time that could be better spent pursuing the career of your dreams in the field of your choosing.
From a statistical point of view the numbers seem to favour pursuing some form of education beyond that of a secondary level. Employment rates for people with university level education are far higher than those without and it’s quite typical for a university educated graduate to be earning more than the average wage. Facts like these are what have driven the tertiary education levels in Australia from their lows in the post World War 2 era to the dizzying highs that we see today. This trend is what inspired the Howard government to create things like the New Apprenticeship System in order to boost the industries that relied on people eschewing university education in favor of learning a trade. Indeed not going to university, at least in Australia, would appear to be outside the norm just as going to university used to be.
It should come as no surprise then that I am a product of the Australian university system. Being one of the lucky (or not so lucky, depending) people born before the cut off date I was always a year younger than most of my class mates which meant that, since I skipped the traditional gap year that nearly all Australians seem to take, I managed to graduate at the same time as many of my peers despite my degree being 4 years long. Like many of my fellow students I was fully employed long before graduation day and had a career path mapped out that would see me use my degree to its fullest potential. Whilst I have been extremely fortunate in my career I can’t say that my degree was 100% responsible for the success I’ve enjoyed, nor for others who’ve walked similar paths to mine.
Now there are some professions (law, medicine and I’d like to say engineering but everyone’s a bloody engineer these days) where university is a legal requirement and there’s no getting around that. However for many other industries a degree, whilst seen as a useful “foot in the door” for initial job applications, is ancillary to experience and length of time in the industry. Indeed my rise through the ranks of IT support was mostly on the back of my skills in a chosen specialization with the degree just being a useful footnote with many not even realising that I was one of the few people in the IT industry legally allowed to call myself an engineer. The question then, for me at least, shifts from “should I go to university” to “what value can I derive from university and how is that comparable to similar time in industry?”.
It’s not exactly an easy question to answer, especially for an 18-year-old who’s fresh out of college and looking to make a hard decision about their future career. Indeed at the time I made the decision I didn’t think along those lines either, I just felt that it was probably the way to go. About 2 years into my degree though I was soon jealous of the money and progress that my friends were making without going to unversity and began to question why I was there. Upon reflection I don’t believe my time at university was wasted but the most valuable skills I learnt whilst there weren’t part of the syllabus.
This, I believe, is where you need to make a personal judgement call on whether university is right for you. The most valuable things I learnt at university (critical thinking, modularity, encapsulation, etc.) aren’t things that are reserved for the halls of an education institution. If you’re autodidactical by nature then the value proposition of higher education might very well be lost on you. When I started out at university I was definitely not an autodidact as I’d rarely seek to improve myself mentally beyond what I was required. Afterwards however I found myself craving knowledge on many wide and vast subjects, reveling in the challenge of conquering a new topic. This is not to say that university is a clear path to becoming like this, and indeed it seems to have the opposite effect for many, but it sure did wonders for my fledgling mind.
My main point here is that there’s no definitive stance on whether university is right for you or not and anyone who tells you that is at best being misguided. To truly understand if higher education is the right path you must reflect on whether you can attain knowledge in other ways and in similar time frames. It’s a deeply personal thing to think about, one that requires an objective view of your own abilities and desires, and sometimes you won’t be able to make a logical decision. In that case it’ll come down to what you feel is right for you and, like many of my friends found out, you’ll eventually figure out if it was right for you or not.
It’s never too late to start learning again.
I know I don’t have much real world experience when it comes to managing people with the majority of my experience being focused in 3 short stints of project management. Still when I coupled that with my 2 years of formal management training I feel I’ve got a good idea about how to organise a team of people to achieve a certain goal. Additionally I’ve had a fair bit of experience working under many different kinds of people all with their own distinct management styles so I know what works practically and what doesn’t. So when I say that one of the most common problems in management (apart from not knowing your own weaknesses) is a clear lack of strategic direction and planning¹. Whilst I’d love to say that this is distinctly a public sector problem, thanks wholly to our 3 year parliamentary terms, it is also rife in the private industry.
At its heart the issue stems from immediate needs of the organisation being given a much higher priority than long term goals. Logically this is understandable as the immediate issues generally have real impacts that can be measured and the benefits can be realised in short time frames. However this also means that, unless you’re extremely lucky, you’ll be sacrificing your long term sustainability for those short term gains. For the public sector this kind of behaviour is almost ingrained as goals that stretch beyond the current incumbents term don’t usually get a whole lot of traction. For the private sector however it’s usually comes down to maximising their quarterly/annual figures which usually makes the decisions even worse than those in the public sector.
A brilliant example of this fell in lap my lap yesterday when the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) decided that it no longer required the services of 17% of its contractor workforce and promptly told them that they didn’t have a job anymore:
The federal Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations ended the contracts of 51 of its 300 IT contractors, some of whom had worked at its head office for years.
Staff in other workplaces across Canberra are anticipating similar news this month as the bureaucracy seeks to cut its technology budget by $400 million this financial year.
Stunned Education Department contractors told The Canberra Times that several staff were still unaware they had no job to return to today.
Now I haven’t been able to source any of the reasoning behind the decision² despite having 2 family members working in the department but even without that I can tell you that the decision was made with no regards to the strategic direction of the department (although I’ll also tell you how they’d argue the opposite). It all comes down to a game of numbers that went horribly wrong coupled with a distinct disconnect in the communication lines between the direct managers of the contractors and those who made the decision to let them go.
Taking a long term view of this situation would have you plan this kind of move out for at least a couple months before hand. The argument could be made that they didn’t have the work for them anymore however my people on the inside tell me that’s not the case as they’re still understaffed for the workload they have. The flip side of this could be traced back to the Gershon Report which advocated slashing contractor numbers and replacing them with permanent staff members. That move however would have required them advertising those positions months ahead of pulling such a stunt which, if you checked the agency’s job listings, you’d know hasn’t happened. The only remaining reasons are either a huge management stuff up or an attempt to slim down their budget.
Both trains of thought completely disregard the long term goals that the department has. Dropping that many staff with such little notice means that the work that they were currently responsible for is no longer being taken care of. Additionally the short notice of termination means that there could not have been a handover to other staff leaving quite a lot of work in a state of limbo, either having to be redone completely or shoe horned in to meet their milestones. The quick termination would not endear the organisation to those contractors it gave the shaft to either and DEEWR already had a somewhat shaky reputation when it came to its contracted staff.
As it turns out though it was probably a massive management stuff up, since they’ve publicly apoligised for what they did and appear to be working to get them all back on board.
What is there to be learnt from all this? Well the over arching point is that major decisions should be made with a vision that stretches beyond any immediate time frames. In my example a misinterpreted directive was applied without regards to both its short and long term consequences. Had they stuck to their guns though the decision would have long lasting effects on the department’s ability to meet their goals. As it stands they’ve already managed to make 51 contractors uncomfortable with their working situation there and the buzz has already had others question their positions there. Realistically no contractor that’s aware of this news will look at DEEWR seriously from now on.
Snap decisions should never be made when there’s the potential to have consequences that will stretch beyond the immediate time frame. The most common types of managers, those who rose from the ranks of their fellow employees, are unfortunately the most prone to lacking strategic vision for their team. There is unfortunately little that us underlings can do to steer our managers clear of these kinds of mistakes however you can minimize their impact by providing sound, timely advice to influence their decisions in the right way. Hopefully if you’re in a position to make such decisions you’ve either already identified this problem or taken my advice on board, but I’m happy to discuss your points here should you disagree with me 😉
¹Strategic in this sense relates to long term ideas, on the order of 3~5 years. Ask your current boss to see if they have a strategic plan for your area/section/division, you might be surprised at what they give you back.
²As it turns out they pointedto the Gershon Report as the source for firing the contractors. Considering that the report specifically mentioned replacing contractors with permanent staff not firing them. So as it turns out the real reason was a little from both my trains of thought: a huge management stuff up done with the hopes of slashing their budget. Words fail me to describe how idiotic this is.