Is a uni education all it’s cracked up to be?

I was having my “goodbye” coffee with two mums from school when the topic of Queensland Premier Campbell Newman’s mass sacking of government employees came up. Both were understandably disgruntled at their spouses being fired, and as permanent part-time employees, excluded from the official figure of 20 000 sacked. Being permanent part-time employees also means that their spouses, bread-winners in both families, are entitled to little, if any, retrenchment payout.

“But can’t they find new work?” I asked.

“My husband is trying, Stella. But there are so many competing for the same jobs,” said one.

“Those that have been fired do the work while management get to keep their jobs,” said the other. “Just because they all have MBAs, people think they know what they’re doing.”

“Do you still believe an education gets you anywhere?” I asked. In a land where plumbers and  electricians make more than white-collar professionals, I find this hard to believe.

“Sure it does. All these people in management have bloody MBAs.”

“Do you remember that day when you called to ask me when I was going to come and pick up Amanda?” She had thought that I had forgotten to get my girl from school.

“Amanda had actually forgotten about Jiujitsu.”

“Yes, and when I arrived, with 10 minutes to go until the end of class, I spotted Fiona talking to this guy. She later left, but because she had been talking to the guy, I thought it fine to strike up a conversation with him while waiting for Amanda to finish Jiujitsu. I asked him who he was waiting for and he said his three kids. Except for his daughter, I’d never seen his children around school before. He told me that’s because the eldest goes to grammar.”

Grammar schools are notoriously expensive. Those we have here in Brisbane cost on average $30k per year, per child; fees are less than that but by the time you add uniforms and excursions, it will come up to that figure.

“He told me his eldest is in grammar and he is going to send numbers 2 and 3 there soon (that’s $90k per year on school fees) because he believes the quality of education is excellent. I said to him, ‘If you don’t mind, can I ask what you do for a living? Our school has the children of many doctors and even they can’t be sure to send their kids to a place like grammar.’ He told me he had a bunch of restaurants in mining towns.”

“Ah,” said mum number 2. “That explains it.”

“I said, ‘You must be very smart to do so well then.’ He said he’d spent 10 years setting them up. He was only a middling student at school, not at all brilliant. He went to Brisbane State High and he doesn’t want his kids to go there because most of his classmates are in jail! It makes you wonder on the value of education, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, one plumber I know has so many clients that he refuses to take any more on.”

The average charge out rate for plumbers and electricians is $150 per hour. Because it is a cash business, there is the opportunity to under-declare tax, whereas as an employee, taxes are deducted from your wages even before they are handed to you.

“It doesn’t make you feel so smart for going to uni, does it?”

Mum number 2 nodded. She has 3 degrees herself.

“And with this mass sacking, it shows you that not only can you ill afford to send your kids to a place like grammar, you are totally dependent on someone else to give you a job. That’s not all. I said to the guy, ‘Oh so you must want your child to score an OP1, going to grammar. That’s the whole idea why someone would send their kids to a school like that. He said, ‘My kid doesn’t have to make an OP1. He can get an OP4 and I can pay for him to do medicine in Bond University. Bond University is a private university.”

The question on my mind was why have your kids study medicine if they can make more money and have a better lifestyle doing business or a trade? This guy was talking to me at 4pm in a school playground, on a weekday. Most men are at work at that time.

“That’s the same with MBAs,” said mum number 2. “Those who have it don’t necessarily know more than those who don’t. Companies are not rewarding you for staying on with them and working your way up.”

I told her about my brother who’s currently doing his MBA. “He has to do it because that’s the only way he can get ahead. As a regular professional, the prospect of advancing to management or executive level is low. Even then, someone else decides whether you have a job, how much you make, what your working conditions are.”

His Royal Highness thought that with a medical degree, he’d be done. Then he discovered he’d have to spend the next 10 years specialising to be a surgeon. Now that he’s finished, he has to sub-specialise further in order for us to stay in the city. He expects to be working until he’s 70. Meanwhile he’ll keep getting taxed while I receive no handouts in return.

“So what does Amanda want to be when she grows up?” asked mum number 2, since we were on the topic of useless vocations.

“Something impractical, I suppose. But I think she’ll either do medicine or dentistry. She likes science and like her father, is particularly fond of chemistry.”

“But we just spoke about how unrewarding it is to be a professional. Amanda should be a plumber,” she said.

“I know. But it’s an Asian thing to chase paper. We just feel so much better if our kids go to school.”

And with that, we both went home. Each to think, because that’s what we’d supposedly been taught to do at university.