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Another open letter to the year 12 school leavers of 2020 (because I still haven’t figured out TikTok yet)

Published:26 June 2020

Professor Nick Klomp, Vice-Chancellor of CQUniversity Australia.

Professor Nick Klomp, Vice-Chancellor of CQUniversity Australia

In all my recent discussions with Year 12 students, I’ve detected a consistent theme: year 12 in 2020 sucks. There was nothing lowkey about the way COVID-19 ambushed your most important school year. Instead of classrooms, school formals, sports trips and a social life, you got iso at home for months with the folks. Oh, and don’t forget you’re spending the year broke as well, having been locked out of most retail and hospitality jobs.

And for those of you with university aspirations who thought they were due for some good news in 2020, along comes a surprise major announcement from the Government that might have turned your university plans upside down.

If you missed it, last week the Government has decided to make some university courses cheaper (such as teaching, nursing, engineering, IT and science), while making others more expensive (such as law, business, arts and humanities), in an attempt to influence university enrolments towards areas of “national employment priority”.  Essentially, the Government is using price signals to get you to reconsider your career aspirations.

This news is bound to be met with some confusion. You’ve probably chosen your Year 12 subjects based on your career plans. You may have already imagined yourself as a future Justice of the Supreme Court or CEO of a media conglomeration. But don’t despair – all hope is not lost.

My advice to year 12 students who are considering the career signals being sent to you by the Government this week, is to ignore the career signals being sent to you by the Government this week.

I’m not saying teaching, nursing, engineering, IT and science aren’t important career paths – they absolutely are. I’m an environmental scientist by training, myself.

What I am saying is: when considering university options for next year, you need to block out the background noise and decide where your passions lie. Focus exclusively on how you want to make an impact in this world. The only person who gets to decide what your career and study paths looks like, is you. Don’t let a room full of politicians and bureaucrats convince you against doing an arts, humanities, business or law degree if that is where your passions lie.

No doubt “follow your passions” makes for a great bumper sticker, but let me break down the advantages of this approach when considering your university options next year:

  1. The politicians and bureaucrats who devised the new university fee structures did so based on a five-year ‘best-guess’ forecast of employment trends. After that they have about as much clairvoyance as that octopus at the zoo who use to predict the outcome of soccer matches. In all likelihood your career will span through to the year 2067 or so. There is not a politician or octopus on the planet who could predict employment trends over this time. So set your own career course.
  2. If you were intending to study some of the courses that have now become cheaper (such as teaching, nursing, or environmental science), then great news: your qualifications will be in high demand and your end-game HELP loan will now be a little lighter. The world needs you, good luck with your fantastic career choice.
  3. If you were intending to study some of the courses that have now become more expensive (such as humanities, arts, law or commerce), then great news; your qualifications will be in high demand and you retain full access to one of the world’s most generous student loan entitlements so that upfront cost is no barrier to your education. You don’t even start repaying that student loan until you are established in your career and earning good money. The world needs you as well, and strong employment prospects await your graduation. (Sneaky side note: students who graduate from my university with law, humanities or creative arts degrees have similar – if not better – graduate employment rates as students from other disciplines.)
  4. Keep in mind that the average teenager today will likely have 17 different jobs over five careers in their lifetime. Your first degree will have plenty of opportunity to take subjects in different disciplines, and your first qualification won’t be your last – you’ll be retraining and professionally developing your entire career. If everyone rushed to the ‘cheaper’ courses, and nobody enrols in the ‘more expensive’ courses, then not only does the world suddenly get very boring, but in five years’ time the politicians will be rushing to reverse today’s pricing adjustments due to skills shortages. The lesson here, again, is to ignore the noise and follow your passions.

Don’t get me wrong, the Government doesn’t have evil intentions with these university pricing reforms –they are trying to shape a future workforce for a robust economy, and that’s not easy. In fact, hidden within the drawbacks of these reforms for affected students and their universities are actually some good initiatives – especially if you are from non-traditional or rural/regional background. So, I’m definitely not suggesting we take to the streets to overthrow the Government. Just don’t let them decide what your passions are and what you want to be in life. Study what you love. Love what you do. Dream big and change the world. And while I’m dispensing advice, call your mum every week and floss regularly.

My take-home point as a wise old university Vice-Chancellor is this: the level of success, contentment and motivation you will draw from your career over a lifetime is directly linked back to your interests and passions, not to the marginal pricing adjustments of your temporary HELP loan. So, when you are considering your university options for next year, listen to your heart, not the politicians.