The Stats Guy: The world is getting smarter, yet the average university student is getting dumber

The average university student is much less of an intellectual firebrand than the average student 160 years ago.

The average university student is much less of an intellectual firebrand than the average student 160 years ago. Photo: TND/Getty

Over the Christmas break I read outstanding biographies of the great thinkers Humboldt, Goethe, and Oppenheimer.

As I was reading, I realised that these historical figures all had a better and more enlightened university experience than I did. That’s partly because these intellectual giants were much smarter than I ever will be, but it also has to do with a simple statistical truth: While we are collectively becoming smarter, the average university student is getting dumber.

Centuries ago, only a sliver of society attended university. This intellectual elite was drawn exclusively from the gentry and clergy.

In the UK in the 1860s, only 1 in 77,000 people went to university. Today 43 per cent (almost 1 in 2 people) of all 20-year-olds in Australia are attending university.

The average university student is much less of an intellectual firebrand than the average student would’ve been 160 years ago.

Thankfully we are collectively smarter today than we were in the past because science and technology advanced rapidly.

By now almost all children receive secondary education – unthinkable a few centuries ago.

Our economy advanced so quickly that education became inflationary. Close to half the jobs that young workers in their 30s hold require an academic degree.

How did we get here?

Let’s look at the educational attainment of the Australian population by age (from 20 to 100+) as recorded in the 2021 Census.

We start reading the chart on the right at the 100+ cohort. Of the people born in or before 1921 only 5 per cent (1 in 20) went to university. That’s already a much higher share than what the UK saw in the 1860s.

As we move towards the left side of the chart, we reach the 80-year-olds born in 1941. Three times more people (14 per cent) acquired a university degree in the span of just 20 years.

The 60-year-olds of 2021, born in 1961, were higher educated yet with a quarter (24 per cent) of them having academic qualifications.

For 40-year-olds, the 1981 birth cohort, university was pretty much the norm already (43 per cent).

It appears that by now about 45 per cent of young people will score a university degree.

As Australia transitioned into a knowledge economy we needed more people in accounting, professional services, and engineering while we needed fewer people on the farms and in the factories.

To fill all these jobs, we imported skilled workers from overseas. At least that’s what we did in the last few decades. In the 1950s and 1960s we needed unskilled workers and imported few academics. So far so simple.

Splitting this data by sex shows that women have outnumbered men at university since the 1953 birth cohort. Meaning since the 1970s universities are predominantly female and have gotten more female ever since.

Today for 32-year-olds the education gender gap has grown even wider as 51 per cent of women and only 37 per cent of men hold an academic degree.  

That sound like good news for single men on campus, doesn’t it? The numbers and socio-economic preferences favour men.

Back in the day when women were largely excluded from the world of paid employment, marriage was the best way up the socio-economic ladder.

We know from dating apps that women still prefer their male partner to match or supersede their own educational qualifications. That’s increasingly problematic in an environment where women are higher educated than men as the pool of eligible bachelors (what a pun!) keeps shrinking.

As the above chart shows, this trend is even worse for university-educated female migrants looking for an equally educated Aussie male. So, if you hear a young woman complain that there are no good men out there, she does have a point.

What will happen from here on is pretty clear. Rather than foregoing relationships altogether, we will see more women entering relationships with male partners who have lower educational credentials and lower incomes.

As a result, more men will become primary caregivers as households will send the higher income earner back to work at a higher capacity.

This will lead to more women in leadership positions and will normalise dads on the playground.

Currently, education is by far the best indicator for your future income. The more educated you are the more money you make. It’s just that simple.

There are of course plenty of exceptions already. Mining workers take home more money than most PhDs and there are plenty of plumbers who make a decent buck too. These exceptions could become more common in the future as the skills shortage in the trades worsens.

Governments on all levels are slowly catching up to the urgent need to fix the housing crisis (for more on the topic Alan Kohler has essential reading).

This means increasing housing supply and upgrading infrastructure (roads, rails, schools, childcare).

I argued in the past that I see no likely scenario in which we will lower our migration intake significantly.

Big Australia is the way forward which means middle skilled workers (TAFE level qualifications) will be in high demand. A shortage of workers should increase wages and reputation in a way that encourages more young people to learn a trade.

The way forward might lead to slightly fewer young people earning university degrees. That doesn’t devaluate the importance of education, quite the opposite.

In the long run we will see more tradies taking short courses at university aimed at improving their business skills. As we progress, lifelong learning will be an even bigger part of every profession than it is already.

Demographer Simon Kuestenmacher is a co-founder of The Demographics Group. His columns, media commentary and public speaking focus on current socio-demographic trends and how these impact Australia. His latest book aims to awaken the love of maps and data in young readers. Follow Simon on Twitter (X), FacebookLinkedIn for daily data insights in short format.

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