27 Nov 2017

Does our 'university or bust' culture need to change?

12:45 pm on 27 November 2017

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Photo: 123rf

Industry training organisations are worried more young people are going to ditch apprenticeships and flock to university.

The Government expects a 15 percent increase in the number of people studying when it introduces a free first year of tertiary education in 2018. Student allowances and living cost loans are also going up by $50 a week.

The Industry Training Federation is worried that will result in a further rush of school leavers to university.

“We need skills in the workforce now and one of the things we worry about is having people in our tertiary institutions until their mid-twenties, racking up big student loans,” said its chief executive, Josh Williams.

Right now, there are 43,000 apprentices and 105,000 people in traineeships. Williams said that total number could, and should, double.

He told RNZ’s Nine to Noon programme many companies are crying out for more apprentices.

“People are facing 50 years of economic shocks, rising technology, automation... what we’re looking for is the ability to support people and help them upskill and reskill,” he said.

“Apprentices will help build 100,000 homes, care for the elderly and help repair and upgrade infrastructure. So right now keeping people in classrooms might not do us any financial favours.”

Last week, The Wireless spoke to school leavers about the pressure to go to university.

One leaver said her and her classmates had been given the impression that university took priority. Apprenticeships and internships were relegated, mainly by deputy teachers and the principal.

She said the prospect of free tertiary education was appealing, but didn’t change her plans to take some time off studying. “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,” she said.

University of Auckland graduation in September.

University of Auckland graduation in September. Photo: Unknown

Williams said he often comes across a “university or bust” attitude at schools. He said young people need to know that going down other paths isn’t considered failure.

Almost 30 percent of his organisation's apprentices and trainees already have university degrees. That proportion is growing.

“Talking to, say, our carpenters who have degrees ... many say they wish someone had told them about these apprenticeships at school - then they wouldn’t have a big loan,” said Williams.

“My problem is if you take a 17-year-old and have them not saving and not earning and getting into debt until they’re 23 or 24, are we going to be able to continue to grow [as a country]?”

The Government must back-up free tertiary fees with improvements to careers education, said president of the Union of Students Association, Jonathan Gee.

He hopes the Government fulfills its promise of personalised career development plans for every high school student.

“We’ve heard from many students who have initially enrolled at university only to find that it wasn’t for them, that they wished their options were more clearly laid out at high school,” he said.

“School leavers are often basing their decisions on flyers from university marketing departments, rather than accurate information about all their tertiary options because that information is not easily accessible.”

The Government’s first year free policy applies to industry training and polytechnics, an aspect of the policy Gee hopes schools make very clear.

A computer classroom fit to teach a new generation of students.

A computer classroom fit to teach a new generation of students. Photo: 123rf

President of the Careers and Transition Education Association, Warwick Foy, told Nine to Noon the responsibility doesn’t just fall on career advisors at schools. He said individual teachers play incredibly important roles.

“Schools should talk about what’s best for their students. It can’t just be up to one person - we need our subject teachers and heads of departments to think about what they’re offering and how it helps students make decisions about what comes next.”

He said school curriculums could be more diverse and help push students towards areas where opportunities are, like coding, for example: “[We can’t just] bang five subjects into a timetable that makes everything else work.”