Are University qualifications worth their cost?


When I went to University of Canterbury, getting a tertiary degree was very much the “in” way of gaining a good qualification. It did not seem to matter too much what it was in, despite the significant cost increases since 1989’s education reforms having strongly increased the incentive to choose wisely. Arts, science, engineering, social work or law – all were “good to go”. In many ways they still are, but with university graduates finding it harder to find work, people are starting to question whether degrees are worth the cost any more.

I started in Geology in July 2000, intending to walk away with a Bachelor of Science. My postgraduate study would be entirely contingent on how my undergraduate degree went. I switched to Geography in 2002, having reached Year 3 in that major before getting out of Year 1 in Geology. Admittedly marks were mediocre, C+’s B-‘s with one or B’s interspersed for good measure. I think my Grade Point Average was about 3.00 or about a C+.

With those marks I knew I was not going to get into postgraduate study very easily, so I took a year off to refresh, travel and see about a Postgraduate Diploma in 2005-06 – my G.P. had warned me off attempting a Bachelor of Science with Honours because of the stress that it entailed in the Honours year.

The reasons for doing postgraduate study were simple. It amplified your job prospects considerably because your ability to be organized; conduct research and whole host of attributes useful for working in the work place were going to be exposed. It also opened up a whole lot of other opportunities including voluntary sector jobs that relied more on attributes than knowledge would pop up. And last but not least, those that made it into postgraduate are serious students with talent to burn.

And so that largely turned out for the students in my postgraduate years. With the exception of one or two they all found decent jobs, and most are now married or in steady relationships with children and trying to get on the property ladder.

I was one of the exceptions. The others started off nicely and bailed for various reasons. In my case I tried to find work, but I think a combination of employers being reluctant to hire people with declared medical risks, my work skills not being up to scratch and a worsening gambling addiction that interfered with my attitude all combined to delay my progress. I had envisaged as a result of my study, by my mid 30’s being out of home, steady partner and job doing something linked to my skill set. At this stage I cannot tick any of those boxes.

But how much would my study have helped? To be fair it certainly would have have helped, but would it have been a complete one size fits all solution? I am not sure it would have been.

Over the years, I have come to believe that the goal posts have moved. Employers have different expectations of what they want from employees. A failure to invest in research development and technology means it is a cut throat environment trying to find a job. Scores of great potential employees all looking for jobs that in many cases simply do not exist. But many of them have a bit of money, so they simply waved goodbye to New Zealand as soon as they got a visa to where they wanted to go and in some cases have not been seen since.

But what about those that do not have that money? What about those like me who have to live with long term medical factors? I could happily live somewhere else, but I have one problem. I cannot ever stop my medication. If I do I would lose control of my blood pressure and I have never been 100% confident I would be able to pay for the medication overseas. And so, I am stuck in the one country I am sure that I can.

Recently I completed a Graduate Diploma of Sustainable Management. Much was learnt and I have had by far the best marks ever in my tertiary study. At the Open Polytechnic, I demonstrated my ability to do serious research. I demonstrated my ability to be organized by completing it a month ahead of schedule and fitting in an overseas trip at the same time.

It has not changed what I want to do. I still want to work in environmental regulation or natural hazards. I still think a local government, Crown Research Institute or N.G.O. is the best way to go.

But was the Graduate Diploma worth the effort if employers have moved the goal posts again? Do not get me wrong – it was a superb result and I am still feeling the after glow weeks after getting the final marks, but what if it fails to be the break through I was hoping for? What then?

 

 

Teachers strike as much about conditions as pay


As New Zealand braces for another wave of teacher strikes, we are getting mixed messages about what is driving the strikes. Some are saying it is wages. Others are saying it is working conditions. The Ministers of Education and Children are saying they have done their best.

Teachers have to be a range of things that they were never trained to do and should not be attempting to do. Among these roles are being de facto parents, part time social workers, and nurses. In other words being made to do – by circumstance – things that they simply should not.

So, I find it a bit disingenuous that the Minister of Education Chris Hipkins and the Minister for Children Tracey Martin can somehow believe that the teachers are simply striking to get as much money as they can.

A teacher, whilst reasonably expected to discipline children when they are naughty or refuse to follow instructions, should not expect to have to put up with the range of behaviours that they are being subject to. These include physical assault, things being thrown at them, inappropriate behaviour such as groping. All of this is not only totally improper has anyone considered the disruption and upset that it must cause students to be witness to this?

When I was at intermediate in 1993 we had a relief teacher one time. She was covering for two days and on the first day, a student was being particularly disruptive. His desk had already been separated and pushed up against a wall by the regular teacher because of his behaviour. On this particular day he was not having a bar of the relief teacher. At some point he had been asked to get on with his work and stubbornly refused. When the teacher came around to tell him off, he leaped out of his chair and pushed her up against the wall. The class captain ran next door to get a teacher to assist. It took about three staff to restrain him and the class had to be sent outside whilst he was calmed down. Then after a meeting with the Principal which saw him suspended on the spot he came back in grabbed his books, dumped them on the floor and slammed the desk lid so hard it broke its hinge.

Things have moved on since 1993. But I think the ability of teachers to sort out unruly students has not improved. There will always be a disruptive core of students in any school who might come from homes where there is no parental guidance. None of the teachers I had reacted excessively to the behaviour of the students in their classes.

But more recently they have also had to be parents of sorts. Some have said that they have children in their classes still wetting themselves; children who have not learnt basic table manners. Some have had to go so far as to take children into their own homes, which creates ethical issues about the limitations of a teachers responsibility and where the State, parents or other body must take charge.

Teachers are also concerned about the lack of help they are getting on children with special needs. Whilst assistance has been provided, concerns linger over the quality of the training, how many hours the teacher aides will be able to do. Special needs students range greatly in terms of needs and dependency. Some are quite high functioning whilst others will have behavioural and language impairments and some will be non verbal.

When one considers these issues individually and collectively, should we really be surprise that teachers are going on strike. The expectations on them have become unrealistic and the resourcing has not kept up. Now we are paying the price.

A ban too far: Don Brash’s Massey University ban


I will call it from the outset. Dr Don Brash’s speaking ban at Massey University was a ban too far.

Given that we never got to hear what Dr Brash was going to say, though we could make a reasonably good guess as to the subject matter, the decision by the Massey Vice Chancellor was not only a gross over reaction it was premature.

The other day the controversial Canadian activists Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux were stopped from an event they were to talk about their opposition to immigration and their activism on the right of the political spectrum. Coming days after Ms Southern and Mr Molyneux’s controversial speaking engagement being cancelled, perhaps the Vice Chancellor of Massey University thought it was just not the time. Perhaps she thought, as she apparently did, that there would be a security threat or some other problem.

To ban Dr Brash, however divisive whatever he had to say might have been, from speaking at Massey speaks of a University that is scared to champion freedom of speech. It speaks of a University unable to tolerate something thousands of New Zealanders laid their lives down for in two world wars.

Do we actually know if what he was going to say is even divisive or not? Suspicions are one thing, facts are quite another – we do not know for fact that he actually had something divisive in mind.

I know a few people on the right. I disagree with them on most things, but not this. Not when the right to freedom of speech however horrible, wrong and improper whatever the speaker/s of the day might have to say is being challenged. That is not okay.

But my real beef is with Massey University. What on earth was the Vice Chancellor thinking? This will be damaging for the university as one of New Zealand’s tertiary institutions. People will look at Massey and wonder if it is going the same way that Berkeley University in California has gone – a place rocked by division and now loaded with tension, split along sharply partisan lines. I do not believe that the V.C. should resign, as others are calling for her to do, but to have a cold hard look at ones professional self in the mirror would be a very good idea.

I do not want to see any New Zealand institution, tertiary or otherwise go the direction that Berkeley has gone in California. For a land that prides itself on civility and a fair go, that would be a dreadful state of affairs to find ourselves in. But it is a direction we might be going if incidents like what happened at Massey with Dr Brash play out elsewhere in New Zealand.

Why the lack of confidence in New Zealand economy?


Stuff reporter Tracy Watkins wrote in The Press that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has five major problems upon her return to work. One of those problems is dealing with an apparent elephant in the room called business confidence.

Apparently it is at a ten year low. Supposedly the economy is somehow at risk, which I find a bit rich, given that this Government has:

  • Not even been in office a year and has not had time to undo the social consequences of the previous Government
  • Is addressing socio-economic concerns that have seen more and more New Zealanders at risk of falling through the cracks caused by unsustainable increases in the costs of living

Contrary to what National and A.C.T. would have one believe, many of the problems assailing the New Zealand economy at the moment are actually not of the Governments making. As a relatively minor, albeit respected player in the global economy, New Zealand’s ability to influence the likes of larger nations such as the United States, Russia, China and so forth is limited.

New Zealand did not ask for the trade wars that have been starting up, or which threaten to start up. It did not ask to be a victim of large nations slapping tariffs on each others products – the decisions by United States President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping were always going to have a negative flow on effect.

New Zealand did not ask for the high level of political tension in the Middle East that has seen frequent threats of war being bandied about between the United States, Israel and Iran. The very high petrol prices at the moment are a reflection of the fact that fiery rhetoric is starting to be matched, ominously, by military movements in form of U.S. and Iranian military assets being moved into the Gulf region.

Nor have we asked for the winding back of necessary checks put in place after the 2007-09 Global Financial Crisis to make sure that the banking system cannot destroy itself. The Dodd-Frank Act of the United States has been challenged by Republicans trying to assure their place in the 2018 midterm results. The Act was passed by President Barak Obama to end the notion of “too big to fail” which had seen large banks such as Lehman collapse, and ensure fiscal stability and accountability. With concerns mounting that the banking sector may be on the edge of another failure there is little sense in removing these checks and balances.

As for New Zealand economic symptoms, significant reinvestment in health, education, the social welfare system as well as transport and other sectors can only be a good thing. After years of relentlessly chipping away at these sectors, gaps are showing in mental health, housing, affordability of every day necessities. Such investment will help to keep many people who are at the lower end of the wealth spectrum in a position where they do not become destitute, and pay for itself in the longer term by enabling them to find work.

The significant investment in railways and public transport will help to reduce congestion on major routes, but also take more freight off roads and enable it to be moved in bulk. Some roads in New Zealand, such as the State Highway 1 coastal section south of Kaikoura are simply not meant to take the large trucks that are driven along a twisty, narrow route that have tunnels with low ceilings.

Nor should there be concerns about changes to labour legislation to ensure that the exploitation of workers cannot go unchallenged. As a nation that prides itself on giving everyone a fair go, that means giving workers fair working conditions. Common sense, really.

Supporting our tertiary students


When I was studying at the University of Canterbury, there was a student debt clock on the wall of the main dining room in the Student Union building. When I started it was about N.Z.$4 billion in 2000. It was a depressing sight. The speed with which it kept going up was shocking – in the space of a lunch time period you could watch it put over $1,000. I queried the accuracy of it and got told by both the Student Union and the Accountancy Department that it was. Whilst watching the numbers soaring, it got me wondering about the best approaches to supporting students academic endeavours without financially crippling New Zealand.

There was a Emergency Unemployment Benefit. This could be applied for by students who have been working part time to help cover living costs whilst studying and found that their own funds cannot bridge the gap. This was New Zealand First policy during the 2002-2008 period.

My own idea is of an universal tertiary allowance proportionate to the amount of time one spends studying a week. An EFTS 1.0 student is one who is understood to be committed to full time study, and can only work if they have time left over after studying. For them the allowance should be a living wage of $680 per week, or $17 x 40 hours. It enables them to pay their fees on time and should supercede all existing tertiary education allowances and benefits.

The way it would work is, if a student is studying 15 hours or more would get half of the allowance. Those doing say 30 hours or more would be eligible for the full sum. Students working part time whilst studying would only be eligible if their work was casual or less than 10 hours per week.

During its time in office, National removed the Postgraduate Allowance, which was to support students doing Postgraduate qualifications such as Certificates, Diploma’s, Masters or Doctorates of Philosophy. At the time it was justified by the then Minister for Teritary Education along the lines of: “students can go on the student loan scheme as it is interest free”, whilst quite missing the general problem with loans being that at some point they have to be paid back.

I support any plan where a student has a portion of their debt wiped for every full year they spend working in New Zealand once their study is completed. One such plan could be a dollar for dollar scheme, whereby for every dollar paid in tax, a dollar is wiped from a students debt. So, a person with a $20,000 debt who is paying $5,000 in tax per annum would be all done in 4 years. Such a win win scenario will make New Zealand considerably more attractive to New Zealand students who might have been eyeing a one way ticket to another country.

All these years later and with the promise of $50 extra per week in the pockets of students studying starting on 01 January 2018, I am once again wondering whether tertiary support for students is appropriate and if not, what can we do about it?