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Talk-ED: Thrilling ourselves by degrees

Stuart Middleton
25 May 2011

Excuse me if I sound a but out of breath as I write this – it’s graduation week and we have all those exciting ceremonies and events that all take time. But it’s time well spent because in so many ways this week is what it is all about. It is the moment for staff and students to put on their best clothes, adorn themselves with academic finery and strut their stuff.

I cannot help be reminded of the “first-in-family” impact of what we are seeing at each ceremony. There are many young ones in the audience. I used to think of the first in family as a linear force that affected each of the family that came behind the pioneering graduate. But more and more I think that the appropriate metaphor for the impact is that of a cluster bomb.

The impact of a first-in-family graduate is not linear but multi-directional – it doesn’t just affect those who come behind, the sons, daughters and grandchildren, but also the aunts and uncles, the cousins, nieces and nephews, perhaps even the neighbours. This deserves more careful study.

So 1,000 graduates who are first-in-family students might well influence the futures of 10,000 others? More? Whatever it is it is significant and perhaps this is where investment could be made. Here’s an idea: a first-in-family graduate is given a voucher for say $15,000 that can only be used on the post-secondary education and training of immediate family members. There would need to be rules around this but it certainly could be done. The money is held in trust by the provider from which the student graduates and is then cashed in at any registered tertiary education institution as required.

This would have an additional impact to that created by the additional income that a graduate is assured of. A study reported this week in Washington that a graduate with a bachelor’s degree could expect to earn 74% more than someone whose highest qualification is a high school diploma (which equals NCEA Level 2). If they have a postsecondary qualification above a bachelors degree those earnings are 84% higher that the high school graduate.

The report notes that tertiary education institutions have had a different purpose since about the 1970s – “they are no longer conforming to the image held by some of large liberal arts institutions in which everyone sits on the lawn and reads Shakespeare.” They are now highly vocational institutions. In fact Anthony Carnavale, author of the study, notes that college in the US is being linked much more closely with future occupations. He also notes that there are clear and significant the differences between degrees in different disciplines in terms of lifetime income.

But the overall message of the report is that Bachelor degrees are worth it, they will position those who graduate so that they can earn a family sustaining income and be advantaged financially over their lifetime.

Finally I note the ages of those who graduate. Degree study is not the preserve of the young nor should it be. A girl being born in Auckland this year can expect to live to between 97 and 100 years of age. The old paradigm of educate, work, retire, die is being replaced by a much more cyclical profile for living with the cycle of educate and work being repeated. I think that is what they mean by “lifelong learning” – it must mean being equipped for these periodic learning episodes. If it simply means that each and every waking moment is filled with learning it is too trite for words. The new world has us all earning and learning over and over again.

Oh yes, graduations are a great thrill and a great stimulus. I love them. The medieval clothing, the ceremony, the singing. My only regret is that the hymn Gaudeamus Igitur no longer features as much. The web tells me that the song is “an endorsement of the bacchanalian mayhem of student life while simultaneously retaining the grim knowledge that one day we will all die. The song contains humorous and ironic references to sex and death”. Goodness me, I have only sung the first and last verse which are a wonderful set of sentiments.


Gaudeamus igitur

Iuvenes dum sumus.

Post iucundam iuventutem

Post molestam senectutem

Nos habebit humus.


Let us rejoice, therefore,

While we are young.

After a pleasant youth

After a troubling old age

The earth will have us.


Vivat academia!

Vivant professores!

Vivat membrum quodlibet;

Vivant membra quaelibet;

Semper sint in flore.


Long live the academy!

Long live the professors!

Long live each student;

Long live the whole fraternity;

For ever may they flourish


That last verse is such a statement. I go home from each graduation wanting each of our graduates to flourish and for their families to experience the academy.

Published inEducation


  1. I agree entirely with you about the singing of Gaudeamus Igitur. At Ardmore Teachers’ College, it was a standard at assemblies and when I first was capped at Auckland University, there was a rehearsal by we students before everyone entered the Town Hall. I guess they wanted us to be able to show that we could sing the tune. Perhaps a possibility for Manukau is to have the translated words appear on screen and to also have the students primed to sing the Latin original.

    I’m bound to say that I think the other thing that could happen is the ever so slight doffing of hats marking the transitions of elements of the ceremony; it’s a courtesy that doesn’t seem out of place.


  2. Angela Yerkovich Angela Yerkovich

    It was a great to see you at my recent graduation, I am now able to put a face to the name. I am a ‘first in family’ graduate and I know that furthering my own education has had a big impact on my immediate family. Four of my children have enrolled in tertiary programmes since I began my degree. This was one of my main reasons for completing my degree, I wanted to carve a future pathway for them. However I hadn’t thought about what impact I might have had on extended whanau until I read your article. They have followed my degree journey on facebook and I am now wondering what would be the best way to approach them in order to find out whether they have been inspired by my achievements. As a Maori I am interested in furthering the education of my people. Are you aware of any research on ‘first in family’ impact?
    I would also loved to have learned and sung Gaudeamus Igatur.

  3. Angela Yerkovich Angela Yerkovich

    Found Gaudeamus Igatur on youtube – cool!

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