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?



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.

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?

A New Zealand shame: exploitation of international students

Thousands of students come to New Zealand every year from all over the world to study. Their socio-economic backgrounds are as diverse as their nationalities. We welcome them with open arms and are only too happy to take their money. But how are we treating them and is the real reason they are coming here actually legal under New Zealand law?

Not necessarily says New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. Mr Peters is concerned about the rise in cases of students, particularly those of Indian nationality being brought in by agents of questionable repute. Those agents are then made to work low wage jobs in return for staying.

Minister of Tertiary Education, Steven Joyce, accuses Mr Peters of wanting to shut New Zealand down to business and points out the fact that these students bring in N.Z.$3 billion per annum. Mr Joyce is wrong. Just because it is creating money for New Zealand that we are all too ready to take, does not mean that those dollars are:

  1. Ethically earned – in a way that fits the limitations of reasonable endeavour
  2. Legally earned – were these students actually eligible to work in New Zealand? If so, were they made aware of their rights and responsibilities under New Zealand law? If not then it might not be entirely people trafficking, but it is certainly an exploitative practice

But Mr Peters alludes to something darker, more consistent with the people trafficking allegations being made: the bringing out to New Zealand of students for money making purposes by corrupt agents who should not be able to do business of this sort. Mr Peters alludes to the students being forced to stay in New Zealand and have to work low wage jobs on the basis of being able to stay in the country. Although  Mr Peters does not directly say so this potentially suggests that their passports and/or other legal documents are being withheld from them, with some sort of punishment attached if they try to do so.

Mr Peters’ claims are therefore not new, but they are certainly not those of a politician wanting to continue as Mr Joyce suggests with the “shutting down of New Zealand for business”. He is supported by Labour leader Andrew Little who reiterated a long held and unfortunately valid concern that foreign students are treated like cash cows, the inference being that they are only good for the money New Zealand generates.

New Zealand needs to toughen up on the agents who can bring people into the country. All agents should be verified by Immigration New Zealand and have a license that needs to regularly renewed with a “warrant of fitness” type exam every few years to ensure that an agent is aware of changes in the law and operating requirements that have happened since their last renewal. Immigration New Zealand needs to make clear to the Indian Government that the only agents recognized are ones that they have vetted.

Would the Minister of Tertiary Education like it if he were treated like a cash cow?

I doubt it.

Labour: Three years free tertiary education

So, the Labour Party has finally made a big policy move. With yesterday’s announcement of policy to tackle the huge student debt that has gone from N.Z.$4 billion in 2001, to $10 billion in 2008 when National took office, to just over $15 billion today it has finally been recognized that a decade and a half of wonky tertiary education policy is not addressing one of the biggest causes of debt in New Zealand.

But Labour’s policy announcement is so much more than that. Even three weeks ago, I was wondering what it would take for Labour to make a significant policy release. And even three days ago with Labour Leader Andrew Little having to haul in David Shearer for supporting the Trans Pacific Partnership, one might have wondered about the party’s internal stability. And whilst there is still considerable cause for concern, I am just for the next 24 hours going to allow Labour a word of congratulations at releasing what looks like a great policy.

So, well done Labour. I think you understand that the election is still possibly 18-21 months away, but you also understood that New Zealand was looking to see if Labour was capable of doing anything bold and original. You understood that the time to show some leadership was now. 18-21 months is still quite a bit of time to go until an election and much could happen in the interim, but your move has given Labourites a reason to believe in their party; centre-left New Zealand something to cheer about and – with a bit of luck – National something to make it realize it is not the only party in the game of who governs New Zealand.