4 December 2017
Gandhi was once asked what he thought of Western civilisation. He replied that he thought it would be a good idea. What about parity of esteem in post-secondary education? That also would be a good idea.
It has long been the received wisdom of those who come from the universities and those in the community persuaded by their pronouncements that a university qualification trumped all others. Seldom was this backed up by convincing data and those who did know the real data knew that it was simply untrue.
This educational myth was based largely on a lack of parity of esteem that the universities held for most of the other forms for post-secondary education and training which at times bordered on simple arrogance. It was also a reflection of an education system which resulted in a schooling system that valued the academic track to university above all others. This happened from the 1970s on with the slow decline in the industrial arts in secondary schools, some of the curriculum changes (especially the Technology curriculum) and the heavily “sectorised” post-secondary education system.
Thanks now to Josh Williams, CE of the ITF, who commissioned a report from BURL and a well written piece by Liam Dann (Weekend Herald, 2 December 2017, Business Section) a well-regarded economics commentator, we have some good New Zealand data that supports the view that there is little advantage to either side in a comparison of the lifetime earnings of a citizen qualified in the trades and one who has graduated with a university qualification. The difference is small.
I for one celebrate this – a well-educated person (trades and university based) is an excellent investment for a society which relies heavily on the skills of both, getting qualifications across the board is critical to success of communities. With the certain knowledge that people learn and develop skills in different ways, we need a broad sweep of areas for learning, ways of developing and opportunities for contributing. This might sound like a multiple pathways approach!
Internationally, across the English-speaking world, there is a growing realisation that the privileging of a university track to post-secondary education and training had contributed in part to the skills shortage now experienced across those countries, some of the resultant competition for skilled migrant labour and to the growing number of young people who choose neither trades nor university in part because they cannot enter one (the university) and they have succumbed to the view that the other (trades) has been discredited by ill-informed (a polite way of saying uninformed) criticism of those trades as a lesser pathway.
The developments in New Zealand since 2008 (well and often described by EdTalkNZ) have shown many thousands of young people that a trades pathway can be both a track to a lifetime of success and reward and, as other evidence confirms, academic excellence, This is something the universities have claimed as their own but which in truth can be achieved and is being achieved through applied education in the trades.
The BURL report appears to miss a key advantage held by the trades, the ability to start at a relatively early stage, your own business. Many trades people settle into early experiences and quickly develop an independent grasp of the skills, knowledge and ways of doing business in those trades. Their futures are sound, especially for those prepared to work hard and are prepared to meet the demands created by labour shortages.
But the BURL report rightly makes clear that trades people often do not have the burden of debt created by the longer and more expensive university courses. This advantage is not to be underestimated.
A healthy community is one which values the contributions made by all who live in it. University graduates alongside tradespeople are to be valued, afforded parity of esteem, rewarded well, and valued for the contribution they can and do make. It is time for the Trades (Automotive, Electrical, Building and Construction, Infrastructure, Painting and Decorating, Roofing, Technicians and so on) to stand alongside Law, Medicine, Engineering, Business and Economics and the Arts as worthy careers and pathways that can be recommended confidently to young people.