High stakes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2011, 12:00am


My younger son has never been so stressed. Next week, he begins the last part of his secondary schooling, a series of examinations stretching into early next month that will determine which of the overseas universities and courses he is interested in will consider his application. But the pressure to perform, the fidgety wait for the results and offers, and life away from home are only part of the concern. Most worrying is whether his choices will lead to a viable career.

Having helped him wade through the thick course handbooks, I can sympathise. In my day in Australia in the 1980s, going to university seemed simpler. There were fewer choices, courses were less focused and what lay ahead after graduation seemed more assured. Tertiary education has obviously changed. University is no longer free and, to pay their way, colleges have had to become businesses as well as places of learning. Foreign students are big money-earners and courses are tailored to their need. International Baccalaureate programmes mean that virtually all the world's universities are on offer.

Engineering is one of my son's interests, but he is confused about which stream to take. Civil, electrical and mechanical engineering are naturally on offer, but they are joined, depending on the university, by aerospace, automotive, mechatronics, telecommunications, mining, photovoltaics and solar, environmental, geo-information systems, computer, software, and chemical engineering, to name just the ones I jotted down. Most school-leavers do not have a clear idea of what careers they would like to go into. Confronted by this list, and similar ones in other subject areas, my son was understandably baffled.

Another of his interests, computing and multimedia, seems to have the added problem of whether there is a job awaiting on graduation. It would be hoped that universities tailor their courses with job markets in mind, but globalisation and economic uncertainty can make that challenging. Software development, animation and digital video and audio production can be outsourced to anywhere and the competition is fierce. Taking such a course in Australia, only to find after three years of study that all the work is being done by lowly paid programmers in Nepal, wastes time, money, energy and human resources, not to mention the matter of destroying confidence.

The uncertainty has prompted him to make a few choices for an increasing trend, the double degree. Add another year or two to a degree and do two - say, a bachelor in information technology and another in multimedia. That gives more employment options on graduation. It obviously takes more time before the student joins the workforce, while generating more income for the university.

If my son was a model student and got top marks, there would be less uncertainty, of course. Medicine or law at a leading university would be the choices, no doubt. He is not, though, so has applied for a variety of courses across a number of different university standards. I am confident he will be accepted for one, but what awaits after graduation would seem more a matter of luck than good planning.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post.

Greg Torode is on vacation