Investing in change

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.28, 24 July 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
Wellington

President Obama is keeping up the “Yes, we can!” theme with his latest support for the Community Colleges in the USA. He announced an American Graduation Initiative that would see $US12 billion additional funding going into the community colleges adding 5 million new graduates by 2020.

The USA Community College evolved as an alternative to the traditional four year college (i.e. university) that offered conventional higher education. The system received a boost in the 1960’s when California included them into the development of a comprehensive postsecondary higher education provision. The Californian Dream of everyone being able to go the college was to be realised with the help of the open access community college that led to a two year exit qualification (often the Associate Degree) or a transfer option to complete a conventional degree at a four year college.

The institutes of technology and polytechnics in New Zealand have taken on the role of community colleges but with a narrower and more focused vocational and technical orientation than the USA community colleges. They also have in the last 20 years added a relatively narrow range of degrees to their portfolios.

Both the USA and New Zealand share similar challenges – the gap in the middle of the skill range. The focus has shifted too much onto so-called high level qualifications and too far away from the middle level skilled technician. The call for increased numbers of students at Level 4+ is interpreted as a call for more degree level students. Qualifications such as the NZ Certificate in Engineering or Science and suchlike all once had a valuable role to play in feeding into those areas people skilled to undertake technician level responsibilities that supported the work of those with degree qualifications.

To mindlessly accept the creeping credentialism that has seen increasingly higher level qualifications required for work that while becoming different has not become markedly more difficult, has led to a series of distortions.

The 2006 New Zealand tertiary graduation numbers in critical technical skill areas make for an interesting read. It is hard to tell how many of the graduates subsequently replace that qualification with a higher one but the relative proportions of graduates at various levels remains somewhat constant. When a comparison is made of sub-degree graduates with degree (bachelor and postgraduate to masters) graduates, the balance is interesting. In Management the split is 64% (sub-degree) / 36% (degree), Engineering 71% / 29%, Information Technology 64% / 36% and Law 5% / 95%. So there is a sound basis for the assertion that we have too many students graduating at too low a level. Remember that these figures are for disciplines in which there is a need for low, middle and high level skills.

But when the figures are seen on a student number basis there might be an even bigger concern. NZ Prime Minister John Key suggested in a recent speech that we might be turning out too many commerce and law graduates and too few engineers and scientists.

For each single engineer or scientist who graduates at degree and postgraduate level, New Zealand graduates over four commerce and law graduates. At least our increasingly skill deprived economy will be well managed and regulated!

So is President Obama right to see the USA Community College as the place in which make a significant investment at this time? And would an investment in the ITP sector also be the right move just now? The answer is probably the same in both countries. In general investment in education does produce long term gains when it leads to a step change in access or performance.

Investment followed the 1877 Education Act which opened up primary education to all. In the early 20th Century New Zealand had an enviably high standard of living. There was additional investment in the late 1930’s and into the 1940’s as secondary access was expanded. In the 1950’s we again enjoyed a relatively high standard of living. Is this pattern a matter of chance? Of course some rightly argue that there is a multiplicity of factors that lead to high standards of living. True. But perhaps the decision to make a step change in education provision is the key.

So what might be that step change right now? It is probably the Youth Guarantee investment which will in some form or another offer students the opportunity to access free education for two further years beyond the age of 16 in settings outside the secondary school. In the development of the education system (see the steps in the previous paragraph) this is a logical progression. Simply encouraging everyone to continue in conventional secondary schooling might have the appearance of continuing our proud tradition of universal access to education but the stark facts of disengagement suggest that continued education is only a feasible goal when opportunity is offered in a range of settings.

We made a mistake along the way in thinking that “more” meant “same” and uncritical commentary about knowledge waves and information ages emphasised the need for high level technical skills rather than multiple pathways and a range of qualification exit points. This took our eye off the real prize – getting every single young person equipped to make a contribution. Not just some , but every person, whatever [their] level of academic abilitywhether … rich or poor, … in town or country, … [exercising their] right, as a citizen, to a free education [of an appropriate kind] to the fullest extent of [their] powers.

So we move into the next phase of our maturing education system, one characterised by increasing choice of pathways, of increased status to middle level technical qualifications and to a society that is inclusive in the allocation of access. Rather than defining access as getting into something or somewhere, we will learn to define it in education as an outcome – what does education give you access to?

Yachting and business legend Darcy Whiting died recently and his obituary noted that “… after leaving school at 13 with a Certificate of Proficiency, he attended night school for five years studying English, signwriting, engineering and cabinetmaking. During the day he worked as a delivery boy on a bicycle.”

Can we feel confident that the Darcy Whitings of our age will emerge from the education pathways currently available? If we could, then that would be a great guarantee to our youth.

7 comments

  1. Loyd Hamelton says:

    Aristotle: All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth.

  2. Filippa says:

    Super work! I’ll have to do a cross post on this one 😉 Waiting for new articles

  3. Ghita says:

    Great article! I read with interest Waiting for new posts

  4. Giuliana says:

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