Why you might need a degree…….

The recent NZTALENT letter caused me to have a little hissy fit, not least because several of the signatories have been industry placement partners for Universities. In many ways it seemed a bit of a betrayal. After all, I don’t think students in the system needed to be told that their degrees were going to be surplus to requirement. On the other hand, employers should be allowed to debate with the rest of society what constitutes a useful education and the skills to be delivered. This debate needs to be ongoing, inclusive and informed. Such a debate cannot be conducted without looking at costs. Nor should the debate exclude the notion that education has a broader impact on society than just employability. Indeed, employers have been the major beneficiaries of an educated society, despite not being principal investors. I’ll put this another way, industry gets a near free lunch to which it contributes little, quite often overlooking the real costs.

Since the original letter there have been editorials in Stuff and a “spirited defence” in The Spinoff mounted by Derek McCormack Vice-Chancellor of the Auckland University of Technology. It’s difficult to disagree with much of what he says, especially given that it was supported by openly accessible statistics. However, I don’t see the same vibrant sector as him. The NZ University system is broken, for the most part due to a lack of direct investment in Institutions and insufficient support for students. Laying staff off at Lincoln and Otago isn’t a sign of a thriving sector and the recent planned closures at Northtec is equally worrisome. The VC of Auckland University has openly discussed cutting unpopular courses like Education, thus the removal of an important stakeholder in this very debate. Tie this up to the increased use of casual staff and you have “efficiency” at the expense of capability. The publicly available fact that Derek missed out, was that declining enrolments since 2012 a is problem for Tertiary – so very dependent on “bums in seats”. As an aside, there is little education to be done when students cannot afford to turn up for the education that they have paid for. It’s unclear if the recently announced funding changes will do much to address this.

But let’s look at Frances Valintine self-proclaimed champion of the initiative NZTALENT and that letter, who also appeared in The Spinoff. Frances fronts for Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab, these are sister organisations, one hosted by and the other sponsored by UNITEC. So, the first point to make, is that Frances in effect represents a public tertiary provider. Regardless of any further argument this point should be clear; UNITEC has the same recruitment problems as Unis and is for the most part still an institutional educator. Mind Lab hosted by UNITEC offers one postgraduate programme and courses targeted at schools, oddly not school leavers (perhaps I missed something). The postgrad programme includes such revolutionary educational pedagogies like literature reviews? (TLDR  anyone?). Some of the other sessions look like fun, but still an expensive afternoon off for teachers.

Tech Futures Lab, the sister organisation to Mind Lab appears to be business focussed, more flexible and much like my old business. It provides expensive day courses for the latest buzzwordythingy. In my day it was Flash and digital design from the desktop, here it is Blockchain and thought leadership. So, what? Well it comes down to money, most of the courses on offer are day-long or half-day charging up to $895 a day at Tech Futures Labs. Working on an 8hr day that’s around $110 per taught hour per student. This compares to roughly $80 per taught hour per student at Uni. I’ll save discussing just what you get for your money for another day, in the confidence that it is an argument easily won by institutional educators across the board. Instead I will focus on a real funding gap. Increase institutional funding by 30% across the board (or even in line with the OECD average) and there is no knowing what might be achieved for New Zealand.

Industry should get alongside Education and lobby for better funding rather than convincing itself it can do a better job. Trotting out some nice stories, straw men and limited alternatives is a poor business model and bad for New Zealand.

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