Essay

Beyond the numbers

IT IS SAD that after thirteen years of schooling, education is reduced to a series of acronyms and numbers. BOS, HSC, UMAT and UAC dominate discussion or inspire intermittent bursts of study and guilt while straining once solid friendships. It all culminates with the release of a UAI (university admission index) to two decimal places. Whereas primary education is concerned with ticks and crosses and junior high school with passes and failures, the HSC sees complicated percentages and cumulative ranks take on a greater importance. Its effect is to dull a student's passion for education and learning. Instead, many adopt a short-sighted, aggressive pursuit of Band 6 results. Understanding what the markers want and how to write it becomes first priority, the reality of Year 12 in NSW.

I finished my final examinations a week ago. As the HSC wound down, I realised that over the year I, too, had lapsed into this anxious state of mind. The thought didn't occur when the supervisor ordered "pens down" for the last time, or even in the hours or days that followed. Rather, it manifested itself in the strange mixture of accomplishment and regret when I fed my recycling bin with mountains of highlighted pages, scribbled notes, past exams and red-penned papers. How little they meant to me was astounding: most of the quotes, dates and statistics that I had "learnt" through rigorous practice and memorising were put in a plastic container, destined for disposal.

There was a clear divide, in my mind, between the subjects I was interested in and had genuinely enjoyed studying, and those I chose and slogged at for scalable marks.

This led me to question whether part of my Year 12 education was an ineffective use of a year. Students often choose subjects that earn higher marks rather than those that expand their knowledge or challenge their minds. This was how I chose economics. Numbers were constantly at the back of my mind: how does this course scale; how are the results aligned? Though I ultimately enjoyed the subject, basing an educational choice on an anticipated outcome now seems unwise. But the scoring system that underpins the UAI and students' choices of and access to university courses, forces them to accumulate

facts and figures to regurgitate and then forget, rather than expand their horizons and increase their understanding of the world.

Perhaps, then, much of Year 12 education can be viewed as a game requiring some skill, dedication and good fortune on exam day. Regarding such an outcome as the epitome of high-school education does little justice to students, teachers and their combined efforts over previous years. So where does the fault lie? Should students be expected to worry less about their subjects, ranks and UAI, and instead focus on receiving an education for which they demonstrate a passion?

 

CERTAINLY THERE IS great learning to be had in secondary school. Take the English syllabus, for example. Here the NSW Board of Studies is often accused of oversimplifying the HSC curricula and including seemingly basic texts on prescribed lists. Drama in the form of SeaChange and fantasy epics such as The Lord of the Rings have been cited as additions that "dumb down" the standards candidates are expected to meet in HSC English. Many critics are adamant that modern visual texts are insubstantial and are used to maintain student interest rather than stimulate intellect.

A recent example would be the inclusion of the low-budget Australian comedy The Castle in the English extension 1 course, the most challenging English course, as part of the elective study "Retreat from the Global". Scepticism emerged about the text's straightforward narrative and limited depth. However, it is essential to consider the course framework. In studying The Castle, students were required to "develop their understanding of the ways in which scientific, religious, philosophical or economic paradigms have shaped and are reflected in literature and other texts", while at the same time investigating "the ways that values are inscribed in particular texts and how they are reflected". Critics ignore that this is significantly more challenging than an assessment of themes, ideas, characters and representation techniques. Indeed, the course is highly demanding, and a close study of The Castle within the scope of "Retreat from the Global" is an enlightening and refreshing experience.

Analysing the course outcomes that students are expected to achieve at all levels of HSC English reveals that education now goes beyond the traditional paradigms of reading and writing to encompass an array of critical and creative skills. The Board of Studies' current English syllabus is multifaceted and encourages a diversity of responses. Public criticism will most likely persist until the literary classics of Ernest Hemingway and Shakespeare are reinstated and studied unconditionally, but more is expected of Year 12 students in the HSC now than ever before.

Throughout my HSC years it was difficult to ignore the large number of students who said they would rather write essays on the classics than be required to give speeches, respond to visual stimuli and craft sophisticated answers in a variety of types of text. Ironically, the freedom of expression given to students in their HSC English courses and examinations is often intimidating rather than liberating.

No, the shortcomings are not with the syllabuses or the structure of the courses and examinations; they are a fair, challenging set of standards that endorse uniform application and assessment. The lack of education in Year 12 is more realistically attributed to the way many students view the HSC not as a learning experience, but as a stepping stone to the next stage of their formal education, a device for getting the highest UAI they can because that will be the paramount criterion for their acceptance into a university or college. This mindset encourages students to take on physics, extension mathematics and other subjects that scale favourably. It could be said that those not planning on a university education and aiming at TAFE or an apprenticeship are more likely to enrol in Vocational Education and Training courses, free to select courses for enjoyment and personal expansion. Therefore, the relative importance of a good UAI to students becomes crucial in determining the depth of their HSC education and the value of a broad Year 12 education is lost on number-obsessed students.

The assumption is that a high UAI will bring greater satisfaction because it will enable a student to enter university and thus, potentially, gain reward in achieving the best or most appropriate tertiary education. But there is a sting in the tail: just as the HSC year ends up being shaped by the need to achieve a high UAI, once achieved, the UAI again dictates the student's choice.

The greatest and most alluring benefit of university education in comparison with that of Year 12 is the level of flexibility available in tailoring a degree to suit individual interests, and also the ability to make changes, transitions and transfers if needed. However, when I listen to the advice of friends, teachers and family, the common view is that university is now less about receiving a broad education than encouraging specialisation in a particular field. What is the point of studying for a degree if you are not guaranteed employment directly after graduation? This is cited as a major reason for a decline in the popularity of broad degrees such as the Bachelor of Arts and the rise of information technology, commerce and law, where industry demand is strong and incomes high. This trend is exacerbated by the pressure UAI places on students: many feel obliged to take combined degrees or more exclusive, specialised courses without any real interest in them, believing it would be a waste of a UAI not to.

At the same time, for those coming from privileged backgrounds and schools, there is a direct expectation that students will progress to tertiary education and be part of the professional workforce within years. Students whose parents are university-educated are also often expected to follow suit. The restructuring of the higher-education system in recent years has reinforced this idea by allocating places for students with lower UAI scores but the funds to pay upfront. However, the drop-out rate for first-year students is astoundingly high, indicating that many enrol in courses they have no real interest in.

I find it genuinely disconcerting that, after the pressures of the HSC, students are so willing to pigeonhole themselves into specific fields for the sake of careers rather than education. The opportunities for study presented at university are unprecedented in a range of different areas; they should not be merely discounted because they do not seem necessary for success in later life. Perhaps, in some cases, students are bowing to the looming monstrosity of HECS debt and other significant university fees, and are enticed into highly paid professional occupations that will guarantee easy repayment and comfortable lifestyles. However, as university is the last stage of formal education, students should be able to use the opportunity to experiment with different subjects, avoiding future disenchantment, as well as experiencing a more encompassing range of social, political, cultural, scientific and economic perspectives on our existence.

 

THE ADVICE FROM my school was always to follow my own interests when selecting what and where to study because that is what would lead to long-term satisfaction. Though I didn't apply this philosophy entirely to my Year 12 subject selections, it is apparent to me now, more than ever, that tertiary education is my true opportunity to receive a diverse, lasting education. I have seen enough dissatisfied adults in corporate cages to understand that the security of employment and knowledge in a sector that is now in demand is not the ultimate goal of education. Neither is entering university with a rigid expectation of where I am going to be five years down the track. I cannot anticipate what it is that I will learn through tertiary education and how it will change my outlook on my future; however, I believe that it is of fundamental importance that I approach university in this way.

It is easy for any teenager to lose sight of the worth of education amid the overwhelming stress and pressure of the HSC, and thus so many of the things that the Board of Studies and teachers try to teach students are never really "learnt" at all. But the availability of university education in Australia, while diminishing, remains an unprecedented opportunity to experience the spectrum of possibility that education offers.

We can never know how our education will affect us and inspire us until we have undertaken it. There is so much more to enjoy in education than pragmatism; it is much more important than just a vehicle to a career. This is why, regardless of what figures appear on my letter from the Board of Studies, I am genuinely excited about the future. I cannot wait to be challenged and provoked, to extend my mind to new places, to consider how I have been changed.

If Year 12 students can learn anything from their HSC it is that UAI, UMAT and income for the first year of employment should not dictate their studies or the choices they make about tertiary education. Numbers cannot – and must not – put a value on something that is essentially priceless. 

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