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Parity of Esteem in Post-Secondary Education.

Stuart Middleton


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.

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  1. Jim Doyle Jim Doyle

    Universities (everywhere) and Established Churches (everywhere) have managed to be remarkably resilient in the face of wars, revolutions and whatever else was thrown at them. Position, prestige and esteem are everything. These people know how power works. In short they have been around for a thousand years and despite repeated attempts to reform them, they see no need for change. Why should they?

    All of the success factors worked very well when access to the elite club was truly elite. The entire education system was designed to identify those worthy of entry to the club. The rest could leave school and join the workforce.

    All of that comfortable world began to be challenged in the ’60s and ’70s with the establishment of the polytechnic system. In some jurisdictions the situation got worse when the intruders were allowed to offer degrees. That called for a rearguard action which included such strategies as the PBRF. The response also called for a more subtle approach to the problem by encouraging schools to remind their pupils that the only true road to salvation was a university education. So, despite the irritation of the interlopers and the fact that the universities had to become a little less elitist, it’s pretty much business as usual. Build big lecture theatres to accommodate the masses and then conduct an annual culling to get things back to normal.

    I don’t know who came up with the term ‘parity of esteem’ but I expect it was a university person. The term of course implies that there is no parity, i.e universities and only universities have the ‘esteem’.

    Forget this ‘parity of esteem’ rubbish, the only way to get parity is for the various tertiary sectors to be funded equally. At least then we would have ‘parity of treatment’. “Wait” I hear you say, “the present funding system has been so designed, there is no disparity”. I will wager you a dinner Stuart, that an analysis of government subsidies (including PBRF) per EFTS across the university sector compared to the non-university sectors will show a steadily growing disparity since 1990.

    Have you ever read Alison Wolf’s ‘Does Education Matter?’

  2. Ian Hall Ian Hall

    I am agreeing with you so often, Stuart, that it’s becoming ridiculous!! So, once again, hear hear to all that you say. While I’m a bit ambivalent about these economic impact studies, the ITF is to be commended for commissioning this report and the response from the Vice-chancellors was so predictable. Some of us remember all too well the arguments when polytechnic’s were granted degree-granting status that this would likely be the end of civilisation. Parity of esteem indeed! I commend the work that you, and others, have done on pathways and articulation, and there is still more that could usefully be done. It’s a missed opportunity but I do sometimes wonder what might have happened if the Kirk Labour government had actually adopted Jonathan Hunt’s idea of two-year regional community colleges articulating into 4 year universities? And, by the way, I often have lofty thoughts about vexing educational issues but I have neither the wit nor the energy to actually put pen to paper! So, thanks too for your excellent pieces and the greetings of the season as well.

    • Jim Doyle Jim Doyle

      Good morning Ian. I too, just had a rant. briefly I suggested that ‘parity of esteem’ is a bit of a red herring. It implies the universities have the esteem and the others are trying to achieve parity. That may be true but it misses the point. Forget ‘parity of esteem’, look for ‘parity of treatment’. I would wager that an analysis of government funding per EFTS across the tertiary sector will show an increasing disparity between the university sector and the others since 1990. I do know that in 1990 it was about $800 and by the late ’90s it was over $1,200.

      The Watergate’s ‘deep throat’ advice to ‘follow the money’ is applicable here, methinks.

  3. Ian Douthwaite Ian Douthwaite

    Actually Jim, I think the idea that differential funding underlies parity of esteem might be the red herring. The relative preference for university and technical education is firmly entrenched in the souls of the populace as well as in the sectoral interests.

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