Oh dear, what a little fluster we got ourselves into when the newspapers came out with the news that our degrees don’t lead to much financial advantage for the students who slave to get them. And let’s not take anything away from that achievement.
First, degrees are worth a lot. As pointed out by AUT’s Derek McCormack, degrees provide advantage in the employment stakes and those with jobs tend to have financial advantage over those who don’t! Some degrees are in high demand and do provide not only better starting remuneration but also greater rapidity in a rising career trajectory – Auckland University VC Stuart McCutcheon pointed this out.
Bob Jones of course had his contribution to make with his well-known view that degrees weren’t important unless they were in the thinking subjects such as history. He requires prospective employees to be readers, the mark of the thinking person. He has a strong point here. The parchment is not the endpoint of a degree but a lifetime of access to ideas is.
It is sad when a discussion about higher education settles down to the level of a whinge about pay but the newspaper in an indignant editorial did raise that old argument about whether education, especially Higher education was a private gain or a public good. It is a silly argument because it is and always has been both.
Of course it is a private good, a student who gets a degree (the mark of what is taken to be an education at that point) is privileged through a likelihood that they will be employed, be less likely to be in jail, more likely to have better health and housing. Importantly, their families are more likely to follow in their educational footsteps and even exceed the success they have had. Money? Well there is also advantage there but not as much as in some other countries. Relative to remuneration levels those differences might not be as great as they are portrayed.
Public good? Of course there is a level of public good. While some of the rising credentialism that has occurred over the past fifty years has had an irrational element to it, degrees are an important entry qualification into many professions. The legal profession and the medical profession have always required bachelor degree level qualification for entry into those professions. Now a host of others also require degrees – teaching, nursing, accountancy and town-planning. This is more the result of the push to increase the numbers of degrees offered and the clear increased focus on being vocational that came out of the feral 1990s when the tertiary institutions battled it out for market share.
The private gain / public good argument received its big push in the Treasury briefing papers of 1987 which was responsible for the education system taking a swing to the right in what did become something of a fees rocky horror show for many students. The private good argument won back then and ever since every taxpayer funds degree programmes to all starters. It will be looked at again one day when questions are raised about the sense of this wholesale money laundering scheme that leaves too many young people in debt.
But what was not highlighted in the discussion was that while degrees are important they are not the only qualifications that are both needed and highly valued. New Zealand probably does not need increased numbers of graduates with degrees. What we do need are those with quality intermediate qualifications – the technicians, the supervisors working at the applied practical end of successful business, industry and commerce – the ones that keep the wheels oiled and turning. That is the “skill shortage” and, now it seems, that is the group that we are losing to overseas opportunities. This is not an argument that dimishes the value of a degree but one which simply draws attention to a fact.
Of course we need degrees but even the Tertiary Education Commission joined the feverish chorus in a recent youth transitions paper by emphasising the importance of “higher qualifications (particularly degree level)”. Australia, the US and the UK have all set targets for the proportion of people who should have a degree that they have not a chance of meeting. It is much more intelligent to have targets such as those set by the Better Public Service Goals (85% of 18 year olds with NCEA Level 2 by 2017 and 55% of 25-34 year olds with a Level 4+ qualifications by 2017) – they are achievable and are key markers of both the school system and the tertiary system getting our young people onto a success trajectory.
Nor are university degrees the only degrees that are valued. The MOE published a useful little report in 2009, Does it really matter where you study, which compared the relative benefits of a bachelors degree gained from a university with those gained from a polytechnic. Its findings are not complex and are that:
- the labour market in New Zealand “appears not to discriminate” against polytechnic degrees;
- the starting pay is “roughly the same” regardless of the provider;
- after five years those with a university degree do edge ahead with a “relatively small advantage at the upper end”;
- in fields of speciality for the polytechnics such as IT, commerce, engineering and architecture there is “little difference” and in some cases in these areas, the polytechnic graduates are earning more.
- the study was unable to find evidence that provider quality leads to a gap in earnings over time.
As with all qualifications a degree is merely a stepping stone to further education, to employment, to enhanced life choices and chances and to the likelihood of increased opportunity for your children.
If you can’t take pleasure from all that and want to have a grumble about money, seek solace in the fact that you are doing for your child rather than yourself.