20 Nov 2017

Best for who? The pressure on school leavers to choose university

7:27 am on 20 November 2017

To enroll, or not to enroll.



Thousands of school leavers will make big decisions this month, but a pressure brewing for years has skewed the decision-making process for some, writes Nicole Barratt.

University of Auckland graduation in September.

University of Auckland graduation in September. Photo: Unknown

Victoria Parsonson has a decision to make. In a matter of weeks, a final bell will mark the end of homework and pencils. An emptied locker and a yearbook scribbled with signatures will signal the start of her future, although she is yet to decide where she is headed.

Victoria and her classmates were advised in a Year 11 assembly to start thinking seriously about their futures – their NCEA results would dictate which degrees they could apply for. In their last year of school, gap years, apprenticeships and internships have been relegated, mainly by deputy teachers and the principal. University takes priority.

Perched on her bed, Victoria teeters between childhood and adulthood. The novel Atonement rests on her nightstand; a Tintin poster is tacked to the wall. She isn’t sure she’s ready to make a $20,000+ investment, but enrolling in a degree is a must, she’s been told.

She enjoys arts subjects, so is considering a degree in philosophy, classical studies or history.

School leaver Victoria Parsonson.

School leaver Victoria Parsonson. Photo: Nicole Barratt

“Mum’s moving to Wellington, so it would be easy to move in with her and go to Victoria University. It seems safe and interesting.  

“I just don’t really know what else to do. I don’t know any other pathways that would open any doors.”

A lack of knowledge around post-school pathways is concerning, says New Zealand Careers and Transition Education Association (CATE) president Jane Thomas. It’s human nature for school leavers to be undecided about their futures, she explains, but promotion of a sole pathway will not aid the decision-making process.

Thomas, who is also a careers adviser at Morrinsville College, acknowledges every school is different in its approach to future pathways advice.

“For me personally, I work with the student that is in front of me. If I don't believe university is right for them, then I wouldn’t push it.”

But an academic pressure to attend university “certainly exists” in some secondary schools around the country.

This month Labour reiterated its promise of free tertiary fees for those planning to study for the first time in 2018. The policy covers all full-time equivalent students, including those enrolling in apprenticeships and polytechnic courses.

Thomas says it hasn’t caused any students she knows of to change their minds about future options. “It’s come too late to be fair. The kids have made their decisions, they’ve applied to university, they’ve applied for student loans and allowances.”

She doesn’t feel it will change the way she operates as a careers advisor, either, as she’ll continue to work by looking at the student first.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins says generally speaking, he doesn’t feel there has been sufficient attention paid to how students transition through education, hence why he advocated for Ministerial responsibility for both tertiary education and schools.

Hipkins says he intends to provide students with more guidance on what their future options are. He acknowledges New Zealand needs both more apprentices and more university graduates.


University brings a number of benefits with it, notes Dr Frances Kelly, an Auckland University senior lecturer in Critical Studies in Education. Academic study develops individuals and encourages critical thinking beyond secondary school education.

“But at the same time, I think that we are currently seeing a strengthening of this perception that university is the main goal, at the expense of all the other possible things that the student could be doing with their lives.”

Dr Frances Kelly from the University of Auckland

Dr Frances Kelly Photo: Nicole Barratt

Kelly reckons two late-20th century shifts have contributed to pressure to attend university: a changing nature of the workforce, and a changing perception of what a qualification might do for people.

New Zealand is no longer a primarily rural, agricultural society, and a lot of jobs people used to do are now done by technology. “That’s meant that a whole sphere of employment for us has gone, so where do they go?”

Kelly says there has also been a shift in government’s perceptions of what universities do for society. No longer is university for a small group of elite, instead, governments are encouraging more and more students to go. It is seen as being better for the economy and individuals to get more qualifications, as it will presumably improve their income and standard of living.

She refers to a Education Ministry report from 2013 called “Moving On Up”, which linked New Zealanders’ earning capacity to the level of qualification completed. Five years after finishing study, the median earnings of young people who completed a bachelor’s degree was 53 percent above the national median earnings, it concluded.

Victoria says mentions of university degrees far outweigh mentions of polytechnic institute degrees at her school.

Kelly notes there is less of a differentiation between the two institutions compared to the 1990s, where some technical institutes did not have university status, but the divide still stands.

“Status does come into it, and that’s part of the tertiary landscape being something of a competitive landscape. Universities are competing with tertiary institutes, so they push the ways in which their status is greater.”

Kelly says it’s a complex knot of factors that add to teachers’ sense it is the right thing to encourage students into degrees over apprenticeships or vocational pathways. She adds there doesn’t seem to be a basis for this sense, when people can earn extremely well in trades, but she feels teachers are influenced by a strong societal discourse that university is the preferable option.


Ben McMaster, a 20-year-old qualified builder, had his sights set on pursuing work that used his hands.

As a Year 12 student, he left his decile 10 private Auckland school with level one and two NCEA excellence endorsements under his belt, and enrolled in a building apprenticeship. He says despite expressing interest in apprenticeships, the school’s career adviser directed him towards university construction management courses.

“They definitely try to steer everyone towards university, there’s no doubt about that. There was an attitude of: ‘You go to university or you fail at life’.”

Builder Ben McMaster

Builder Ben McMaster Photo: Nicole Barratt

New Zealand’s latest apprenticeship figures show an increase of 6800 apprentices, up nearly 19 per cent since 2012. In May, Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Paul Goldsmith said the government was investing in industry training to meet growing demand for skills.

It needed support however, from parents, teachers, careers advisors and businesses if it was to meet their target of 50,000 apprentices by 2020.

The Education Ministry requires schools to provide appropriate career education and guidance for students from Year 7 to Year 13. Career guidance should ideally aid students’ move from a “general understanding of life and work”, to a more specific understanding of future options available to them.

But independent Crown entity the Productivity Commission’s New Models of Tertiary Education report released in March said career services in schools were fragmented, and failed to prepare youth to make future decisions.

The report described prospective students as inadequately prepared, attributing this to a confusing array of official and unofficial information sources presented about their study options.

CATE’s Thomas feels the labelling of careers advice in schools as fragmented is not entirely fair. She acknowledges the comment is correct in part, in that time allocated to careers education differs in every school, and there are no exact rules dictating what is to be taught. She doesn’t agree it was “as bad as they were trying to make out”.

“We’re not naive enough to say we’re perfect. We know as careers advisers we could be doing a better job. But our problems are that we don’t have enough time, we’re not paid often specifically for it, and often the careers room – if there is one in the school – is hidden away in some little cupboard. It’s not a focal point.”

Until those sorts of issues can be met, it’s going to be a hard road, Thomas says.


Research by British social mobility NGO Sutton Trust in 2014 found 65 per cent of teachers “rarely or never” gave students the option of pursuing an apprenticeship if they held the requisite grades for university.

The push towards university stemmed from a desire to uphold the reputation of the school, researchers found. Kelly feels results would be relatively similar in New Zealand if the study was repeated.

Status attached to university education does not concern Patea Area School principal Nicola Ngarewa. She believes in a “21st century skills” approach to learning, which acknowledges post- school pathways are not limited to degrees.

The Taranaki school’s curriculum is connected to real life contextual situations, Ngarewa says. There are flexible timetables, no bells and integrated subjects.

Ngarewa, who sits on New Zealand’s Education Council, is conscious it is teachers’ responsibility to create options for young people.

“We’ve got these perceptions of how we managed to make it through the system and what we see as being the ideal way, but we need to absolutely shake it upside down on its head and realise what students’ worlds are going to look like.”

Hauraki College principal Ngaire Harris says it’s about equity. “We treat every pathway as valid regardless of whether that’s sort of an industry hands-on pathway or a professional academic one.”

The Waikato school’s NCEA subjects include agriculture, beekeeping and horticulture.

Equal proportions of her students head to university, polytechnics and full-time employment. She notes it is helpful to bear in mind there is a lot of second chance education in students’ lives, it’s not a decision for life like it used to be.

Debt is one factor that may put school leavers off study. Student loan debt has increased by over 50 per cent since 2008, hitting $15 billion this year. Bachelor’s degree students tend to have the largest volume of borrowing – an average of $9676 each was borrowed in 2015.

New Zealand Secondary Principals' Association (SPANZ) president Michael Williams says in almost all schools, it’s about maximising opportunities for students. Aiming for a university education opens one door, and in turn ensures “all the rest of the doors are open for them as well”.

Invariably, careers advice in schools encourages students to aim high, he explains.

“It’s easier to settle for something else if it doesn’t work out. It’s not a good strategy usually to aim for the lowest and then think, ‘Well I want to do something higher’ later on and not have the entrance requirements for it .”

His advice to school leavers undecided about their futures is to have as many options open as possible.  “But I definitely think they should be going on to some sort of tertiary education. It’s too easy to opt out into a low paying job and end up staying there.”


Juliet Esveld quickly realised university wasn’t the right pathway for her after sitting through two months of classes.

Esveld, a prefect at a decile five Whangarei school, enrolled in a law degree at the end of Year 13.

“I think because I was a prefect, there was an expectation that we were going to go off and do all of these amazing things at university. I didn’t do what I wanted because I was so worried about what everyone else thought of me.”

Juliet Esveld gave up studying law to become a personal trainer.

Juliet Esveld gave up studying law to become a personal trainer. Photo: Nicole Barratt

The 20-year-old, now an Auckland-based personal trainer, still has about $3000 in student loans to pay off from the uncompleted degree.

New Zealand Union of Students' Association president Jonathan Gee says it’s a familiar tale; school students often have a misconstrued understanding that university is the best option in terms of tertiary study. Gee sees “too many” students who enrol at university only to find their chosen degree doesn’t fit them.

Education Ministry data obtained under the Official Information Act shows 13 percent of domestic first-year university students who enrolled in 2015 did not return to study in 2016.

Just over one in five first-year students at Massey University dropped out during or after their first year of study, and around one in six students at Lincoln University.

No caption

Photo: Source: Ministry of Education

Dr Pushpa Wood, the director of Massey University’s Financial Education and Research Centre, feels a one-year period of decision-making time would allow students to gauge what they had aptitude for.

“I think we don’t give young people enough credit. I think they are at 17, 18 intelligent, but are we actually having frank and open discussions with them about their futures, where we are taking into account their views as well?”

In 2010, an Education Ministry study analysed first year bachelor’s degree students. It found taking a year off between school and starting university significantly improved the likelihood of passing most courses for students with lower school achievement scores.

Some of America’s most prestigious universities encourage gap years. Harvard encourages admitted students to defer enrolment for one year to travel, pursue a project, work or “spend time in another meaningful way”. Princeton offers a bridge year program, which allows incoming students to engage in nine months of service overseas before commencing study.

SPANZ’s Williams feels the success of a gap year depends on the student. “Put it into context, are you doing things that broaden your mind and thinking, or are you just getting stuck into a routine and a rut that becomes your life?”


Wood says a shift must occur in New Zealand’s social attitude towards school leaver pathways.

“As a society we should not be looking down on apprenticeships, trade training and vocational training. We should not be looking down on giving students a year or two break to work.”

Wood recently spoke with students at a Wellington secondary school, encouraging them to ask why they want to go to university and what they hope to achieve. Then they are able to question whether it makes sense to borrow money to enrol.

“It was interesting, they hadn’t thought of it like that before.”

Victoria has made a decision.

She’ll take a gap year after she finishes school this month. The teen still intends to go to university, but feels working for a year will give her time to decide if it’s what she wants.

“This last year, I’ve lost perspective of what it is to be passionate about stuff. I need time to figure out what I actually like.”

Labour’s promise of a year of free study has made going to university more appealing, but hasn’t changed her mind.

She says finding a job will be daunting, but thinks the challenge will be healthy for her.

“University would have you all taken care of in a way. You’d be in a hall probably, with classes and solid friends – it’d be kind of like school. But I can wait for that.”

Victoria Parsonson isn't going to rush into signing up for university.

Victoria Parsonson isn't going to rush into signing up for university. Photo: Nicole Barratt