Listening to Simon Marginson address the throng at the Centre for the Study of Higher Education in Melbourne on March 24, my mind drifted to Theodor Geisel’s sociological study The Sneetches.

Simon Marginson argued that the two extrinsic purposes of higher education were to display or gain social status and to gain an economic benefit through employment. He spent a bit of time arguing that the economic purpose was limited and potentially hostile to the intrinsic purposes of education and research.

He left the social status purpose out there, a provocation, but not otherwise explored, perhaps to let us squirm – those of us who prefer to think of status as an unfortunate by-product, not the intentional one.

To be fair to Simon, his main argument was for the purpose of higher education as personal development, of value to all facets of life. It’s a long standing view, and one with a lot of value to it. It is also hard to see that it is distinctive to higher education. If anything, it is a further reminder that university education is just one part of the education system that starts in preschool.

Sitting in the audience I liked that Simon outed the importance attached to higher education as status signifier but could not but wonder whether the two extrinsic purposes – status and economic benefit – are not in competition with each other, if not downright opposed.

What is the status signifier? Much of it appears to come from the sense that university education is a bit rare. Something I have, and many others do not. It may also come from the mystique education itself has, the power of knowledge, the marker of being a bit intelligent. It seems to matter more when the status gets out of kilter with economic fortunes, as it now is for many a would-be academic.

As I often do when puzzling over a higher education argument I posit the same issue for primary school. Not that long ago most people did not attend school. To read write and know long division was notable. It went with having a bit of wealth and belonging to the leading social strata – education confirmed status. For others, being able to gain that knowledge, unlike most around them, allowed an acquisition of status and potentially of economic standing.

But these days it does not mean much. Few of us say “I went to primary school” as though it adds something. If we check the income spread of people who have completed primary school it is remarkably like the income spread of the general population.

So that status marker is gone but the economic value from primary school is enormous. The production line is dominant, a primary school in every suburb and, while it no doubt exists, I have not been confronted with a ranking of the world’s best primary schools.

Of course, most people do not as yet have a degree. But it is now rather common. Which lead me to the sneetches.  Younger readers will know that once upon a time only some sneetches had a star on their bellies.  Most did not and were sad about it. But then a lovely machine added stars, and removed stars, and soon, just like tattoos nowadays, all social signifier was lost.

No analogy is perfect. The economic return in the story went to a marauding American, and no doubt different readers took their own lesson from that.

Listening to Simon Marginson, I saw what a factor the steady loss of status from a degree had been over my 25 years of higher education policy and advocacy. The devotion to brightest equals best, the worry about the wrong kind of minds getting a university place, the use of graduate salaries compared with average (other people’s) salaries as a measure, the worry that a degree no longer (if it ever did) means a good job, are all aspects of assuming a status that is fading,

In particular, the sad faced, one time distinctively starred, sneetches reminded me a little of academia today.  Those in it, or indeed those almost in it but not securely latched, worry they have lost the standing that once would have been theirs.  At a time when Mr and Ms, let alone Dame and Sir, are rarely heard it is intriguing to hear the demand for Dr well beyond the university moat. Last century when I was a student, lecturers went out of their way for first names.  Only the MAs believed in surnames. The title as status marker seems now one last thing to hold to.

For despite Simon Marginson’s assertion that “average graduate earnings have fallen” today’s graduates continue to have more purchasing power than their predecessors last century (just think of what we type with every day).  The gap from them to others is narrower and the one time distinction from the trades is now more like overlapping sets.  Graduates are just like everyone else because everyone else is rapidly become a graduate.  The economics won.

Conor King is Director of Tertiary Education Analysis


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