Time to get serious about education profits

16:45, Feb 16 2013
Fisher funds
Educated guess: Carmel Fisher says school students should knuckle down and learn.

Education has been on my mind this past week. Amidst the back-to-school conversations in our house emerged the perennial complaint: "I don't enjoy that class because my friends aren't in it". Of course, my response - you go to school to learn, not to socialise - fell on deaf ears.

I then bumped into an acquaintance whose daughter is studying at Edinburgh University "because it's cool to study where William and Kate studied". When I then heard of a fluent Chinese speaker taking NCEA Chinese because it will be easy to get an Excellence endorsement, I started thinking about how attitudes towards education have changed over the years.

We all know how important education is for New Zealand's economic fortunes. A well educated and trained labour force will tend to be more productive, and will earn more money than a less skilled workforce. Countries can gain a competitive advantage over others by steering their education system towards certain industries such as science and technology - the "knowledge-based economy" that New Zealand aspires to.

But, just as you can take a horse to water, you can provide a quality education system for students, but if they don't have the right attitudes towards education, it will be for naught.

If students treat school as a social experience, with subject choices dictated by peer pressure, fashion trends or lack of difficulty, we could end up with an educated workforce that contributes little to our country's economic output or competitiveness.

My parents' generation had tough attitudes around education - if you were going to go to university, then by golly, you had to work hard, take "serious" subjects and finish the degree quickly so you could start your career, and start contributing.


It is interesting that as developed nations like New Zealand have become a little complacent, emerging countries are at the opposite end of the spectrum, with the benefits of good education being well understood by parents and governments. In China and India, a good education is regarded as a passport to a better job, opportunities that a rural or factory worker could never dream of, and a much higher standard of living.

In Singapore, pictures of teachers adorn their local currency and most government slogans make reference to learning.

Study is seen as a glorious way to make the nation great, and there is an overriding cultural respect for learning.

In the last 10 years, the number of colleges and universities in China has doubled. There are more than 230 million school-age children in China, which makes for stiff competition. Their education system culminates in a final year "gaokao", a gruelling nationwide exam that determines who is allowed to go to the coveted Chinese universities, which themselves are no picnic.

It is no surprise that international schools here and in other Western societies have proven popular. They offer students an alternative to the pressure cooker aspects of Asian education, along with a relatively carefree lifestyle and relaxed attitudes.

While I'm all for relaxation, I think today's students would seriously benefit from the discipline of yesteryear.

Carmel Fisher is managing director of Fisher Funds, an investment manager and KiwiSaver provider.

Sunday Star Times