Should Australia introduce compulsory national service for school-leavers?

Words by Dustin (he/him), 18 NSW

Everyone knows that our schooling career is progressive. It’s planned out by the education system, almost as if your life has only one direction for the next 13 years: from kindergarten to year one, and eventually year 12. Essentially, young people – including me – feel as if they have minimal control over the direction of their lives until they graduate. I recall the great joy I experienced after completing my Higher School Certificate (HSC) in 2021.

As someone who undertook the HSC during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, I recall the intense challenges everyone experienced. HSC trials were repeatedly postponed, which prevented my cohort from studying effectively. Most students did not attend zoom classes, and the few who did keep their microphones on silent with no camera, just to meet attendance quotas. HSC students in my year felt like they had no direction in life, left wondering when their year 12 experience would end.

I reflect upon my life and compare myself now as a first-year university student, to myself in high school, and I am grateful that I am now free from the HSC. Everyone experiences that joy when they complete the HSC, the end of a chapter. When I commenced my studies in law and politics at Sydney University in 2022, the flexibility of my university schedule allowed me to develop my interests and balance my work as a paralegal, tutor, and more. I admit university coursework is challenging, especially when you cram all your law and art subjects into a 2-day schedule. Despite this I, like most other university students, cherish the freedom we enjoy as post-high school graduates – when we embark on another exciting chapter of our lives.

The suggestion explored by columnist Julie Szego in The Age to introduce compulsory national service for 12 months following graduation is a uniquely horrible idea. School-leavers deserve freedom and should not be forced to participate in national service, no matter what service is offered. Students who have undergone 13 years of schooling already do not need another year to participate in something they may not be passionate for. Some graduates may not enjoy social justice advocacy, volunteer work, or military service, so why force them to partake in these activities?

Personally, social justice advocacy is something I am really passionate about, through my schooling as a high school prefect and as someone who contributed and involved myself in every single possible charity fundraiser. Red Cross, Daffodil Day, Legacy Day, World’s Greatest Shave, you name them all, I would wake up at 5 am and head down to Epping station to collect donations or organise initiatives as a student heavily involved in co-curricular activities.

My successful involvement in these initiatives occurred because I volunteered for these additional commitments. I believe that everyone finds their own direction after high-school. While it might be a challenging process, and we could feel aimless at times, the last thing we require is an additional year of compulsory national service from the government. I had a positive experience because I decided that volunteering and social justice advocacy was something I was passionate about, and if the NSW government had made this compulsory, that perspective or experience may change significantly. After completing the HSC and graduating high school, I never required another year of mandatory service to discover my passion. I pursued my passion by involving myself in the social justice committee at Sydney University Law society, where I am the socials and events coordinator.

However, I know that not everyone is passionate enough, or has the ability, to participate in volunteer work for many reasons. Some people may think that volunteering is a means to stack their resume or CV to prepare them for a future legal clerkship, corporate role and more. Others believe that volunteering is pointless considering that social problems like homelessness would still be rampant in society regardless of their contribution. Some may call volunteering a form of self-satisfaction for our complex morals, whilst others are just interested in other activities.

I believe high school graduates are responsible enough to make their own decisions. Previously, I completed a paid internship at the Independent Education Unions NSW/ACT Branch, which extends my passion for social justice and advocacy, and interned for a Federal MP at the Parliament of Australia – all of which would not be possible if mandatory service existed after graduation.

The opportunities individuals can achieve within one year are limitless, and we should not reduce the choices student leavers can make.

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