Should anyone be able to go to university?

In a recent speech to business and university leaders, Vicki Thomson, executive director of the Australian Group of Eight (Go8) universities, argued against university enrolment on demand, saying that it had harmed the economy, diminished the value of higher education, and created the false view that anyone without a degree is a “failure”. Although there are elements of these arguments with some validity, I strongly disagree with the conclusion that has been drawn.

Tertiary education has clear economic benefits to society as a whole, not just to the individual student. Over the longer term, these economic benefits far outweigh the costs. Tertiary education also has enormous non-economic benefits for society. Subsidising education and ensuring equity of access is worthwhile. This argues in favour of a demand model.

For any given course, it seems reasonable to set entry criteria to ensure that students do not incur a large debt for a course they are unlikely to pass. However, the likelihood of successfully completing a degree course is not always easy to predict, whether this is based on previous academic results or other methods of assessment. The likelihood of obtaining employment related to the field of study is also difficult to predict, given that whole industries may rise and fall in the timeframe of a tertiary course. What is needed is a process of informed consent prior to incurring an educational debt. The ‘informed’ part is currently lacking. This still argues in favour of a demand model, but a much better informed one.

The nature of tertiary institutions and the qualifications they confer is a lot less clear cut than in the past. The general principle used to be that TAFE and similar institutions offered vocational courses, while universities offered courses in which the development of critical thinking and/or research skills independent of the particular career stream was an essential component. The conferring of a degree qualification implied the acquisition of these additional skills.

More recently the degree as a qualification has become a symbol of “professionalism” dissociated from the requirement to possess these additional skills, leading to courses which are more vocational in nature increasingly being provided by universities and leading to the conferring of a degree. There would be less demand for university places if vocational training at institutions other than universities, and qualifications other than degrees, were appropriately valued – not just by “society”, but also by industry advocates such as unions, employers and employees. This would still only help in economic terms if vocational courses could be offered more cheaply elsewhere than universities (and I would argue that they can, because of the smaller and cheaper infrastructure required when academic or experimental research is not an integral role of the institution).

Employers requiring qualifications that are not genuinely matched to the job requirements is a valid criticism, but one which is also not as clear-cut as it might seem. Drawing on the arguments made above, one can see that an employer might require a degree qualification for one of several reasons: the vocational content of the degree course is a specific match for the job; the degree is simply a status marker and completely irrelevant to the job; or critical thinking skills are necessary or useful for the job, in which case the mere possession of a degree is not sufficient. In this last case, an applicant with a degree in a field which is not directly related to the job but which has resulted in the development of superior critical thinking skills may be a better match than than an applicant with a purely vocational degree in the relevant field.

Allowing universities to offer places according to demand is not the problem. The problem is much more complex and encompasses the issues of not having a clear concept of the role of universities, the meaning of a degree qualification and how the costs and benefits of obtaining a university degree will be distributed within society; and the paucity of accurate information on which individuals can base their decisions about tertiary education.


Invisible repairs to the soul


For many years I accepted without question the idea that my recurrent depression was merely a neurobiological aberration, a chronic relapsing condition that would require potentially  life-long medication. Psychotherapy might help me to live with it, or to develop more constructive thinking patterns, but it wasn’t a real treatment. All this, despite the fact that the drugs didn’t really make me better – in fact may have made me much, much worse – and that therapy was what had actually kept me alive through the darkest moments. I accepted it simply because it’s what I’d been taught: the biomedical model of depression is the one most widely promoted by – and to – general practitioners, psychiatrists and the general public.

However, in the course of withdrawing from antidepressants, going back into long term therapy and reading more widely on mental health and social issues, I’ve gained a very different perspective (not to mention a huge source of material for future posts). One of the things that has emerged is a better understanding of the role traumatic events in my past have played in shaping who I am today. Exploring and dealing with those traumas has been the current focus of therapy.

In common with many people who’ve experienced adversity or loss, something with which I’ve struggled is the desire for things to be as they were before. Wanting myself to be like I was before. I know how easy it is to become trapped in searching for the elusive point in time at which everything was ok and trying desperately to find a way back that simply does not exist. I am coming to see that a large part of healing from trauma involves coming to terms with the reality that one cannot go back, and in finding a new and different way of being that is hopefully “good enough”. It’s an approach which ties in well with the philosophies of some of the adjunctive therapies I am using, including yoga and mindfulness meditation (in addition to general meditation classes I’m currently participating in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction – MBSR – program).

One particular incident in therapy gave me a sudden insight into the way I had been thinking and has made it a little easier to change course and to work more constructively:

My therapist’s chair was a little the worse for wear, and he had patched it up with the packing tape used to mark parcels as fragile. This annoyed me intensely, and one day towards the end of a session I brought it up. I said that it looked like he needed a new chair, and he replied that he preferred to fix things instead of just getting rid of them, and he liked having made a feature of the repair. I told him that if I was repairing a chair I would have researched how to to repair vinyl and plastic so as to do it properly, or at least used tape the same colour as the chair, so that you couldn’t see the repair and it looked as good as before. A lightbulb moment occurred as I realised that this whole conversation was a metaphor for our different approaches, and I began to ask myself if what I expected from therapy was that I would go back to being “as good as before”, with seamless and invisible repairs. I have finally begun to accept that I must work with where I am now. It’s still hard work and is going to take a long time, but it’s definite progress.

(Oh, and for the record my therapist did eventually get a new chair).

Taking action against domestic violence

The issues of domestic violence and violence against women have been prominent in the media in Victoria this year, with a concerted effort being made to bring these problems out into the open and confront them. As I deal with my own past I have become increasingly aware of the constant stream of news reports of domestic and workplace harassment and violence, bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault and the murders of partners or children. I’ve also become much more aware of the enormous extent to which our society normalises this behaviour and trivialises it through jokes and entertainment, and then rationalises these actions.

For example we rationalise that the graphic depiction of rape in a work of historical fiction is a legitimate way to illustrate the concept that “things were violent and unpleasant back then” instead of acknowledging that we are choosing one of many ways in which the past might have been unpleasant, and that this particular choice reflects our current beliefs and preoccupations. We admire the magnificent costuming and and vocal brilliance of an opera as a work of art, without pausing to question whether stalking, abduction, rape and murder are more than just the basis of a good story. Countless romances perpetuate the idea that a woman can’t be relied upon to know her own mind, that if a man will only pursue her long enough and apply enough pressure that he can not only possess her, but that she will come to enjoy it.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that we should outlaw productions of Othello or The Abduction From the Seraglio. What I am saying is that we need to address not only the end result – violence – but the underlying attitudes and smaller actions that lead there. We should be challenging the casual jokes about intimidating or injuring women as a way of controlling or punishing them. We should be questioning the choices we make in depicting violence against women as a form of entertainment.

Why now? Yesterday I was reading the Herald Sun newspaper at work. It featured articles on the remand in custody of the partner of Mildura anti-workplace violence advocate Karen Belej for her murder, the continued activism on the issue of domestic violence by Rosie Batty, whose son was murdered by her former partner, and allegations that the Police Union was funding the defences of male police officers accused of (non-employment related) acts of violence against women. Rightfully expressing condemnation of acts of violence. And then in the comics section …

… a cartoon in which a man is dragging a young woman by her hair while two people joke about it.

The hypocrisy and complete lack of insight made me very angry. I complained in writing through every avenue I could think of. I’d love it if my complaint made it onto Media Watch and challenged other people to question their underlying beliefs about what is ok. But even if it goes no further than a series of unanswered emails, I have taken one small step in speaking up. Every time is a little easier. Every action makes a difference.

ANZAC Day 2016

Treating a simulated casualty.

ANZAC Day is an appropriate time to reflect on my RAAF service.

My time in the RAAF was one of the most professionally rewarding periods of my career. I met many wonderful people and had some amazing experiences. Without the sponsorship I received through the ADF Undergraduate Scheme I would not have been able to afford to study medicine. To a large extent I owe where I am today to the ADF.

But along with the opportunities it offered me there were many challenges that people outside the military may not appreciate. Even if you never see combat you are forced to confront aspects of yourself and others that you would often prefer not to acknowledge – that under pressure you are perhaps not as brave, not as tough and just not as nice as you once believed. As a military doctor you continually face conflicts of loyalty and moral and ethical dilemmas. And then there is the issue of the ADF having more or less complete control over your life – not only your working conditions and your career path, but your living conditions and social circumstances as well.

During my time in the RAAF I saw a young colleague deployed to Rwanda 6 weeks after she was married, who was never the same afterward. I knew servicemen suffering PTSD after being involved in aircraft or industrial accidents, at least one of whom refused to seek further treatment for his condition because he was concerned about the impact on his career of revealing the extent of his problems. I saw families with husband and wife both serving who were deliberately posted apart. I saw members facing medical discharges who were devastated by a process that felt as if they were being pushed out of their own family. I saw our forces increasingly deployed for purely political reasons, with those whose lives were actually on the line caught between a government’s bravado and an often hostile public.

I  experienced few of these adversities myself, partly because I was never deployed overseas but also, I suspect,  because retaining medical officers in the ADF has always been difficult so they tended to be treated a little better.

The recent news reports of the appallingly high rates of PTSD and suicide among veterans, many of whom feel abandoned by the ADF after suffering physical and psychological injuries as a result of their service, are something I have been reading with dismay.

The ADF is a resource which should not be squandered: it should be appropriately resourced for its purpose and its members well trained, thoughtfully deployed and well supported both during and after their service.

What are they thinking?


“Cable ties and restraint chairs are set to be approved for use on children in custody as young as 10 if new laws pass the NT Parliament next month.”

This is apalling. Not just in terms of the potential consequences for individual detainees, but what it says about the level of staff training and the underlying policies and attitudes.

There is already one example of this level of restraint being used on a minor in the NT for the alleged reason of “preventing self-harm” – completely counter-productive in this setting and guaranteed to compound the trauma that leads someone to consider self-harm in the first place. Detainees of any sort do not resort to serious self harm merely to get attention or to evade authority. It is an act of desperation.

The NT Attorney General is also quoted as saying that “achieving de-escalation is entirely in the hands of the detainee if they’re playing up”. This is patently untrue, and reflects a very poor understanding on his part of the psychology of power and the dynamics of imprisonment.

Yes, there will be extremely challenging situations in prisons. But especially when they involve individual detainees, and adolescents who lack the capacity for mature and considered decision-making, this is not the way to deal with those situations.

In a timely coincidence, last weekend I re-read some of the details from Phillip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford University Prison Experiment and some of his later writings, including discussion of how the knowledge gained from this research could have been used to anticipate and prevent situations such as occurred in Abu Ghraib prison, and attempts to replicate elements of the experiment by others (with exactly the same results). I can attest to the ease with which such situations develop based on my own experiences of well-intentioned but poorly thought out exercises in the military. Repeated experience tells us that we cannot pretend that “this will not happen to us”- it will.

We can do better.

ADDIT (27 May 2016) Unfortunately this law has now been passed.

ADDIT (26 July 2016)  Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs has called for an independent inquiry into the treatment of Northern Territory children in detention, which was revealed on the ABC Four Corners program on 25 July.



Safeguarding the right to say no


“Outcry as Muslim students exempt from shaking female teachers’ hands at Swiss school”

For the two students involved the reason given is one of religion – which in the current social and political climate tends to immediately raise hackles and unleash prejudices – but if we can look beyond that, the article should prompt each of us to examine our own beliefs about bodily autonomy – the right to decide who we will touch or let touch us and under what circumstances.

Too often we let “politeness” or social convention override discomfort or even personal safety. If a child grows up believing that they “have to” let aunty A pinch their cheek or uncle B tickle them, even if it makes them uncomfortable; or a young adult is made to believe that they are being insufferably rude if they don’t let Mrs C adjust their clothing, or Mr D hug them, even if they find it embarrassing or creepy, we are fostering a culture where that inner voice that warns them when something might not be okay is ruthlessly silenced and they learn that they do not have control over their own bodies but must defer to someone stronger, older or of higher social status. Abusers take full advantage of this. While it might be argued that only a tiny percentage of people are abusive, as we are seeing in the two recent Royal Commissions in Australia (into Institutional responses to child sexual abuse and Family violence), the resulting damage is massive. Allowing everyone, from the smallest child upwards, the right to say no is one step we can take in limiting the opportunities for that damage to occur.

Family Planning Isn’t a Condom and a Pamphlet (linked article)

This blog is primarily aimed at presenting my own work, but an article recently shared with me by a friend resonated with a number of my own feelings so closely that I decided to put a link to it here. Sharyn Astyk is a foster carer who writes the blog Casaubon’s Book, and the article discusses in a very compassionate way a number of issues that underlie reproductive choices and decisions about family size, particularly for disadvantaged women.

Family Planning Isn’t a Condom and a Pamphlet by Sharyn Astyk 23 Feb 2012