Once upon a time university was the preserve of the elite.
OPINION: As recently as 1955 there were fewer than 11,000 students enrolled at the country's universities. Today, there are roughly 180,000 full and part-time students. The total is inflated by recruits from overseas, but there are still 15 times more Kiwis studying at university today than there were in their grandparents' generation.
Education is the great equaliser. In this country the sons and daughters of truck drivers, miners and freezing workers have been educated alongside the children of the professional classes and the rich.
At school they have learned how to read and count. At university they have been introduced to the works of Kant and Descartes, the theories of Euclid and Newton and the glories of the Renaissance.
Some have become teachers, some public servants, some entrepreneurs and some have headed overseas to become leaders in their fields.
But university is not for everyone, something that has been lost sight of in recent decades. Young adults need time and space to explore new ideas, make mistakes and work out what they want to do with their lives, but too many are leaving university heavily indebted, with indifferent degrees and no idea of what they want to do next.
The fault lies with policy makers, educators and parents.
As freezing works and manufacturing plants downsized and closed in the 1980s and 1990s, school leavers were shepherded towards university in ever increasing numbers. Fat university rolls look a lot better than long dole queues.
During the 20 years to 2000 the number of students enrolled in the country's universities more than tripled to 139,000.
But a university education is not the only path to success, a point graphically made by Education Minister Hekia Parata last weekend when she pointed out that New Zealand was in danger of experiencing a shortage of skilled tradespeople because so much focus was being put on channelling students into university and academic pathways.
"The backbone of New Zealand has been built on tradespeople, who then go into business and become our middle-class citizens," she said after delivering a speech to an Independent Schools of New Zealand conference.
In the rush to acquire academic qualifications New Zealanders have forgotten the value of other occupations. But for some, wiring and plumbing buildings not only provides greater satisfaction than shuffling paper, it also proves more rewarding.
As Ms Parata noted: "It's almost cheaper to get a lawyer than a plumber these days."
The lesson for school leavers is to take note of what they enjoy and to think about what they want to achieve before deciding what course of study to pursue.
The lesson for policy makers, teachers, parents and careers advisers is that one size does not fit all.
No matter how bright, not every student is built to spend long hours sitting in lecture theatres listening to others talk.
For some satisfaction is to be had from doing rather than thinking.
IN PRAISE OF ... A GOOD THING
When Dallas PE teacher Dale Irby first saw his school yearbook photo in 1974 he was mortified. He was wearing exactly the same polyester shirt and brown v-neck jumper he had worn for the school photo the previous year. Then his wife, also a teacher, dared Mr Irby to wear the same outfit the next year.
He did, and he did again the year after and the year after and the year after that. A fashion faux pas became a giggle, then a monumental jape. His hair greyed, his spectacles changed and his moustache altered shape but Mr Irby, whose normal workday attire includes a pair of gym shorts, wore exactly the same items of clothing his annual school photograph years in succession.
Local newspapers report that Prestonwood Elementary School has honoured his longevity by naming the school gymanisum after him. Whether the honour is in recognition of his teaching abilities or his fashion sense has not been specified, but one thing is certain: the 63-year-old Mr Irby has a unique sense of humour.
Another is that man-made fibres have their advantages. Despite having to accommodate an expanding stomach, his polyester shirt looks as good 40 years on as the day he first wore it. Brown is still not in fashion though ... maybe next year.
- The Dominion Post