Is education ruining New Zealand's economy?

Last updated 12:35 22/01/2013
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STUDENT DEBT: Is the big price tag of a degree really worth it?

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I have been wondering about university vs the school of life after reading a lot of stories about the number of young New Zealanders leaving for better pay and opportunities overseas and its implications for not only the country, but regions like my own, Hawke's Bay, where our economy has been suffering.

First I will state for the record that I have never been to university. I don't have a degree, or a crippling student loan. My highest qualification is a Diploma in Marketing (one year's full time study) from EIT, from which I have not gained a single 'marketable' job in the 15 years since I achieved it. Whether this makes my opinions more or less valid (or biased) I don't know, but here goes.

When I finished high school in 1995, the only thing I wanted to do was become a radio announcer, and I was for all of six months, but I was in the minority. Virtually every other member of my seventh form year went off to university, it was just what you did (and what you still do?), primary, intermediate, high school, university, work. But I didn't know what I would do at university. The one thing I did know was that I didn't want to spend three years studying something I wasn't committed to and be burdened with a $30,000+ debt, to find at the end of those three years I still didn't know what I wanted to do, or the job I had worked towards wasn't there.

I read dozens of news items last year that showed little has changed in the last 18 years. Hundreds of tertiary graduates leave New Zealand each year because the jobs they trained for just aren't there. One focus was on teaching, there were far more students studying the 'glamour subjects' of Physical Education or English (who had to go overseas to find work) and too few studying to teach Maths and Physics. I wondered how much influence the universities, polytechnics and institutes of technology could have on this, or how responsible they would be in identifying workforce needs and setting subjects and class sizes accordingly. But I doubt they would be too willing to turn down the $30,000+ cash injection per student, either.

Almost as fiscally bad as not being able to find the job you trained for, would be going to university with no clear idea of what you want and gaining a generic BA, BSc or the like. Sure, a degree used to be the only way in to a lot of jobs, it often didn't matter what in, as long as it was a degree, but how practical or helpful to the job were these degrees and the time and money spent on them? Many have gotten these basic degrees, only to end up in a minimum wage job to make ends meet with the student debt hanging over them.

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Debt is a worry to me. I don't like owing anyone anything, from money to favours; I like to pay people back as soon as possible. So I'm inclined to draw a link between the readiness with which our young people are taught, once their standard 12 years of institutional learning is over, to continue on and attain higher learning supported by student loans which lead to a reliance on credit, overdrafts and other forms of debt later in life, which has become endemic in our economy and puts us in the country (and world's) current economic state.

And where does the on-going qualification versus experience debate currently stand? When I was job hunting many years ago, qualifications far outweighed experience. More recently, practical experience has become far more attractive in potential employees, but you can't get experience without a job, and all too often you can't get that job without a qualification. Cue picture of a snake eating its own tail, or a good old circular reference error.

Mark Twain once said "I never let my education get in the way of my learning" which reminds me that some of the world's richest and most successful business men (Bill Gates and Sir Richard Branson to name two) dropped out of tertiary study and earned their millions through practical experience.

What do you think?

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