University in 2016?

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This is the title of a recent newspaper article that is more of a promo or advertorial on behalf of the university system in New Zealand. The article was well-timed to coincide with the publication of the results of the 2015 National Certificate in Educational Achievement – better known in these parts as NCEA. The article has something of a Polyanna feel to it, telling the eager young hopefuls that a university education is ‘a smart choice’, providing ‘better job prospects’, arguing that the unemployment rates of graduates are lower, and earnings higher. Readers (likely prospects) are reminded, that “if being employed is important to you, keep an eye on the employment prospects for graduates in fields that interest you.” The impact of the news of the likely cost of a degree is mitigated by the reminder that this is an “investment that will pay off over the rest of your life.” So, what is the cost? Apparently, $14 000 (NZD), which the average person takes 7 years to pay off.

Some critical thoughts come immediately to mind on reading this. One is self-critical. Just last week, I was appealing to university educators to remember to rekindle the ideal of a critical education, in anticipation of a new academic year (in the Southern Hemisphere, January is the start of a new academic year). I can’t help feeling a touch cynical, though. For one, two of my three adult children have student loans of around $60 000 each (and they have not been using their student loans to take ski trips). This size loan will take far longer than seven years to repay. Their cases are far from simply personal, and represent a major social issue for young New Zealanders – an issue with some direct links to neoliberal state policy. To gain a sense of what I mean, have a look at Student Debt and Activism in New Zealand, an entry on the Savage Minds blog site.

My second critical thought is prompted by the advice offered to potential undergraduates in the New Zealand Herald article to “follow your passions – study what interests you and what you love doing.” The New Zealand Minister of Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment, Steven Joyce, may beg to differ, however. In his economic view of the world, prospective students should be thinking strategically about their likely job and earning prospects in the future, much aided by the helpful Occupation Outlook app, which enables users to gain an accurate sense of job and earning prospects. There is a further twist to this tale, however, as coming to all New Zealand tertiary providers in 2017, is the intended policy requirement

to publish information about the employment status and earnings of their graduates broken down by specific degrees and diplomas…[thus] students will also be able to see what and where to study to improve their employment prospects.

One final point of critique: the work of Brown, Lauder and Ashton on ‘the global auction’ has helped to refute the linear idea that ‘learning equals earning’. Their research suggests that in the global knowledge economy, high skills are often made available at bargain basement cost, while for the elite, earnings are propelled ever-upward. Clearly, some sobering thoughts for academics and students alike, about to embark on the 2016 academic year.

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