An increase in many tertiary course fees is rekindling discussion over the comparative value of on-the-job learning and uni education.
The increasing cost of higher education across a number of popular courses is prompting some students to think twice about heading to university.
Under the federal government’s overhaul of higher education fees last year, students who study law, accounting, administration, economics or commerce will be expected to pay an annual fee up to $14,500 this year. That’s a substantial increase from the 2020 ceiling of $11,355.
And the news is even more dire for those choosing to pursue a course in communications, society and culture. Fees for those humanities-based pursuits will more than double, from $6,804 last year to a maximum of $14,500 this year.
While student contributions have increased in some areas of study, fees in other areas – particularly where there is strong market demand for graduates of those courses – have fallen.
Overall, the government expects about 40 per cent of students starting their study this year to end up paying more than they would have if they began in 2020. Grandfathering arrangements will protect existing students from fee increases.
The fee hikes come at a time when some employers have abandoned preferences for university degrees to speed up hiring and broaden the pool of job candidates.
This, in turn, has reignited questions of what’s more valuable to employers: tertiary qualifications or workplace experience.
The answer will vary according to the discipline being studied.
For example, most people would prefer their GP to have a degree in medicine rather than having worked with patients ‘on the job’.
However, this is an entirely different situation to that of a franchisee who becomes successful in business through years of experience rather than a higher education.
For recruiters, choosing between qualifications and work experience when selecting new hires is challenging.
Recruiters who favour qualifications over experience believe a degree is far more than a string of letters after a name.
They point to the fact that, along with skills and knowledge, a job candidate who has a tertiary qualification displays persistence, ambition, direction and a desire to better themselves; traits that can pave the way for a solid career.
Recruiters on this side of the fence also argue university experience assists an individual’s intellectual, social, ethical and personal development.
They maintain that many modern degree programs are designed around both deep-discipline knowledge and key graduate attributes. Those attributes include communication skills, teamwork, creative and critical thinking, and intercultural and ethical competency.
Some recruiters even worry the experience-only pathway is likely to be hit and miss when it comes to developing the required deep-discipline expertise and key skills needed for workplace success.
Recruiters who rate university education more highly than experience also point to the fact most employers say a university qualification is either essential or highly desirable for a professional role.
On the other side of the argument, recruiters in the experience camp say universities have long been criticised for their failure to prepare job-ready graduates.
They believe the experience trajectory s the only way an individual can truly come to grips with a job.
Further, advocates of experience say real-world skills and practical experience offer advantages that go far beyond the lecture theatre.
Those benefits include the capability of the job seeker to hit the ground running when they start a new role while they are also generally more aware of industry issues, market pressures and customer demands.
The advocates also argue that, unlike formal study, practical experience is unrestricted in the workplace, with hands-on experience happening all day, every day.
And the time it takes to complete a degree would be better invested in gaining intensive first-hand experience in the real world of work, they say.
Recruiters in support of experience also point to the fact that universities have lost touch with the modern workforce; a wide-spread criticism that has prompted many institutions to forge stronger relationships with industry bodies.
Both higher education and work experience pathways to a job come with their own list of advantages, and most recruiters will acknowledge the ideal job candidate possesses a blend of theory and practical skills.
For this reason, many universities aim to incorporate work experience components such as internships and practicums into a tertiary qualification. Work-integrated learning, as those components are often called, allow students to apply theory in supervised practical situations as part of their studies.
Different industries and roles will favour one form of job preparation over another.
The make-up of the Western Australian business community includes successful people with and without tertiary education.
In any case, experience and qualifications mean nothing without the right attitude and a willingness to put in the hard yards
• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer at the Australian Institute of Management WA