Opinion: We need more flexible tertiary education

April 7, 2017

My wife and I have recently been forced to accept that our family is soon to change. Our oldest child will leave home at the end of this year and the family unit that has existed for the past 16 years will be no more.

So we have started the conversations about careers, gap years, further education, fees and loans. In the best case scenario, our son's decisions will lay the foundation for a lifetime of fulfilling work. In the worst case it could mean several wasted years accumulating debt while headed down the wrong path.

We are lucky with the oldest of our three. He has a clear vision for his future career and the course of study it requires. He will head off to university and follow his passion for science and engineering. This will get the big tick from government officials who see the future of the New Zealand economy linked closely to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) industries.

For our other two kids, the choices are not as clear. They have lots of interests and are still figuring out what they're passionate about. This will be the same for the families of seven out of 10 schoolkids who don't go on to university. How do those kids and their parents get help making one of the biggest and most influential decisions of their lives?

The Productivity Commission has just released its report on tertiary education, essentially finding that the current system is broken. Some can't find a study option that suits their preferences while others are excluded from participating altogether, the report says. It adds that the University Entrance standard serves no useful purpose, and privileges universities over other tertiary choices.

Whether UE is useful or not, the real question is whether students and their families are being equipped to weigh for themselves the pros and cons of the various tertiary options. Do they understand the costs, risks and potential pay-offs of their decisions? Importantly, have they considered not just the financial trade-offs, but their own aspirations, the personal costs and rewards, and the viability of their chosen career?

I am writing this as chief executive of Skills Active Aotearoa – the industry training organisation (ITO) for sport, exercise, recreation, snow sports and performing arts. It was not so many years ago that I wouldn't have had a clue what an ITO was or did. Many people still don't realise someone can enter paid work, learn on the job from masters of the profession, and earn a formal qualification through their ITO, at very little or no cost.

My background was a traditional academic one. I went from school to university, as was expected by teachers of any student who did well at academic subjects.

My path changed course when I decided to follow my passion and sold up everything to go rock climbing around the world. Not a very sensible career move, you would think. However, I found paid work as an outdoor instructor and then progressed to middle management and later, executive roles. All within an industry I loved. None of this had anything to do with my electrophysics degree.

The PC report argues for a more learner-focused system. All tertiary options should be valued, including universities, polytechs, wananga, private institutions and ITOs. Students should be able to move seamlessly between them, get funding for all types of training, and pick up small bundles of learning that suit the modern world, where jobs and skillsets are morphing daily.

Looking at my own kids and the conversations we are having about their futures, this is what I want them to know:

If they have a passion they should follow it. Most of us spend a third of our waking lives at work – why not make it something that satisfies and fulfils?
There are fruitful and rewarding careers outside the STEM industries.
Students deserve better information about all the careers available to them, and the pathways to get there. For example, the Careers NZ website has information on seven sport and recreation jobs. At Skills Active we have identified more than 70 exciting jobs in our industries that could interest young people.
All types of training are equally valuable.
Most of us will change jobs multiple times through our lives. We need efficient ways of upskilling as our surroundings evolve.
The best people to talk to students about skills are from industry. Employers can give students up-to-the-minute information about where the jobs are, what those jobs look like in the day-to-day, and which skills are most in-demand.

Employers are the indirect consumers of education. When there is a strong connection between education and employment, students have the information they need to make informed decisions.

Clearly, it's time to talk about skills, and it's time to expand the conversation on how those skills are acquired. Because let's get real – for the majority of New Zealanders this doesn't happen in a classroom or lecture theatre.

I think of my daughter and the choices she has yet to make. The Government says the STEM industries are where she should head. I know forcing her into a career involving maths and science would likely cause her to hate work and feel like a failure. She has so many other talents she can successfully contribute. Just like thousands of other young people throughout New Zealand.

The future of education for New Zealanders lies in a system that acquaints people with all the options, embraces all modes of learning, and values all the roles needed for a vibrant, progressive and caring society.

Opinion piece by Skills Active chief executive Grant Davidson, published in The Christchurch Press, 7 April, 2017