Tuesday, May 21

                So why do that degree… here?

A report – and discussion – from the university front line

I have been involved in numerous curriculum and degree reviews over the decades and in all of them the question always skirted around is: “If you had to leave now with a 3-year undergraduate degree in this subject, what would you do?”

Academics are of course the wrong people to be asked such a question because we never left with just a 3-year undergraduate degree. Or, in those rare occasions when an academic did, they then, after a period of time, carried on to further postgraduate study in either their undergraduate discipline or transferred into a new one and proceeded from there.  So, it is not just that academics have a vested interest in the status quo, they often have little – if any – real world experience of the issues facing the graduate with a bachelor’s degree in the New Zealand context.

Of course, to raise such a question, as an academic, is to immediately place yourself under the suspicious gaze of many of your colleagues who see you as asking the questions of and for a right-wing government or as the mouthpiece for reforming, downsizing, university management. But if the role of the intellectual is speaking truth to power, then that also, by necessity and implication, involves speaking truth to the power of the tertiary education industry.

There is a deep cultural divide across the tertiary sector, a divide not limited by age or degree or discipline, but rather by outlook. It is 40 years since the neoliberal revolution from above radically (and I would say irretrievably) changed New Zealand society and politics. At the age of 57, I am probably the last cohort who can remember life before neoliberalism – and pre-1984 New Zealand wasn’t anywhere near what all the cultural romantics (or we could say, cultural and political conservatives whether left or right) believe it to have been. This is not to say the past 40 years have been a socio-political or economic success to the degree the neo-liberal cheerleaders would have us believe. But neo-liberalism – left or right, larger state or smaller – is the status quo we find ourselves in; and most of society are unable or unwilling to think and vote their way out of it.

This is the society who pay our salaries, fund our universities, provide and are our students – and employ them when they graduate. Universities have a remit to be conscience and critic of society, but a conscience and critic that has a stratospherically idealistic notion of what a university degree provides merely perpetuates the attitudes and perception of an ivory tower. For market forces, university reviews, restructurings and downsizings are never unrelated to what we teach, how many we teach, and what our graduates end up doing or not doing – and how we articulate what we do and why we do it.

There is of course the social good argument of universities creating and educating ‘good citizens’. Universities (understandably) love to proclaim this role and public good as a central plank of their existence and, increasingly, their strategic plans. Yet thinking about this as both a sociologist and historian I’d suggest that the exponential increase in tertiary students over the past 40-odd years has not seen an associated exponential increase in productivity, social cohesion, or a deepened social contract. Of course, the reliable fall-back is to blame such a failure on wider neoliberal society. But that only holds for the ivory tower argument, forgetting all institutions and all individuals are, since 1984, in fact neoliberal to various degrees, enacting and valuing agency and individual choice – whether left, right, or centrist.  I’d suggest there is no point being conscience and critic if you don’t properly understand the society, politics, and economy you are part of – and that we are graduating students into – not just as citizens, but as workers.

Too often I hear colleagues talk of students having a ‘passion’ and that our role is so facilitate and develop such a passion for a subject or a discipline. But I fear this is another case of academics projecting their own experiences onto the great mass of their students. I’d suggest that close to (at least) 90% of students at university are here because they believe it will get them a better job, better prospects, and a better life. So does the question need to be, how might a passion for any subject facilitate these outcomes and expectations? How too, if there is to be a significant cutback in public sector jobs?

We also need to remember most students graduate with no intention or willingness to pursue postgraduate study. Whatever ‘passion’ they have is within a 3-year degree framework. Perhaps then, a question is how can a subject or discipline tap into such ‘passion’ amongst graduates not working in subject or discipline-specific or outcome jobs? 

In 2021 an article published by Berl noted approximately 40% of NZ school leavers go straight into studying for a degree, while 50 years ago it was 15%. hts://berl.co.nz/economic-insights/does-new-zealand-need-so-many-young-people-studying-degree As Berl notes, such an increase in the tertiary educated population has not resulted in a commensurate increase in productivity, which means New Zealand remains a society of relatively low wages and salaries.

New Zealand as a society invests in and underwrites tertiary education which, for a three-year degree, is approximately $80,000 per student, with student fees off-setting this cost by less than quarter. Of course, many of these student fees are loaned by the students as well as many taking out course-related costs. The average loan cost debt per student is approximately $24,000. https://www.wgtn.ac.nz/news/2022/11/dont-cut-them-off-low-performing-students-benefit-from-continued-access-to-loansThe tertiary system understandably argues for the added value and national necessity of an ever-increasing number of tertiary students and graduates, with the Universities NZ site proclaiming “Graduates generally earn $1.5 million more over their working life than someone with a school qualification alone” and New Zealand’s GDP is up to 6% higher because of the impact a university education has on the productivity of workers with a degree. However, this last figure needs to be put in the perspective of New Zealand’s historic and ongoing low productivity. Is the nation really getting satisfactory economic outcomes in terms of productivity from the increased number of tertiary students and bachelor’s degree graduates?

If, as stated by Universities New Zealand, it takes on average to the age of 33 for a degree to pay off – when net additional earnings from a degree exceed the cost of getting a degree and income foregone while studying – is this actually a good investment by society and by many students?  But also, how honest and open are universities in communicating this to students, both before they enter university and while they are studying? If we did so, what would their response be?

What could different disciplines and subjects seek to do to lower this investment return age for their graduates? Should that be the sort of question we ask?  Associated with this, what if we sought to seriously engage with the question of what competitive advantage does a degree in X or Y – from university A or B – give you, whether you stay in the city of tertiary education or move elsewhere in New Zealand? For each university, each degree, discipline, or major is asking for students to make a financial and intellectual investment ‘with us’ – and also, a sociocultural one. But, what do we actually deliver that provides a better return and options than studying elsewhere, or doing  X rather than Y at your university?

If we can’t even point to an intellectual or academic difference, if we can’t say you will learn and know X, Y, and Z that you won’t get doing subject A or C (even in our own college, faculty or school); or if we can’t say ( and honestly believe) these are university A’s points of differences that suggest these recognized outcomes and benefits, then we have our heads in the sand to the realities of wider society and government intentions. For we need to be very aware tertiary restructuring will be on its way and every discipline needs to be able to articulate its value and distinctive benefits.

Of course, there will be many – both inside and outside the universities – who say, why worry about what graduates do? Surely, it’s not the job or function of universities to concern themselves with what the free agents of neoliberal education choices do? But my response is that none of us ever exist in unconstrained, purely free, and fully informed ‘free choice’; rather we exist and choose within what I termed framed neoliberalism. We could term this Animal Farm neoliberalism: all are free agents, but some are (far) more free agents than others.  I would also hope that we somehow continue to exist within and work towards a social contract – both with our students and with wider society.