Degrees of difficulty

Qualification creep has become a tertiary degree arms race. Bruce Munro asks "Is it time for a PhD non-proliferation treaty?'' and "What else can young people do to help themselves get hired?''

Sometimes, the sum of conversations shared and rehashed a few hundred thousand times is a baseless lie. Other times, it is a communal viewpoint that has floated free of its anchoring facts but is nonetheless true.

Tyler Barnes (19) and a flatmate have just struggled back to their Castle St flat with a couch they found down the road. It is not the first time, Miss Barnes says, gesturing at assorted indoor furniture corralled in the small backyard.

She is preparing for her second year at university in Dunedin in the traditional manner.

"Last night's party, that was a big one,'' she says with a laugh.

But soon enough it will be time for textbooks, lectures, tutorials, assignments...

Tyler Barnes, of Dunedin, who is studying neuroscience, was told throughout her secondary schooling that a basic university degree was no longer enough. Photo: Bruce Munro
Tyler Barnes, of Dunedin, who is studying neuroscience, was told throughout her secondary schooling that a basic university degree was no longer enough. Photo: Bruce Munro

Miss Barnes did her secondary schooling at Otago Girls High School. She loved science and always planned to go to university.

It was while still at school that she first heard about the need to get more than just a basic degree.

Fascinated by how the brain develops and functions, she is now studying neuroscience.

She is not sure which potential job avenue she will pursue, but does think she will complete a bachelor of science, then a master's degree and possibly more study after that.

"It's very important that my studies lead to a good job,'' she says.

That is why she is planning to go beyond bachelor-level qualifications.

She does not remember exactly who told her that was a good idea, does not offer any figures to back it up, but recalls that "they told us throughout high school that everyone gets a degree, so you need to go higher''.

It is one of those widely held, unsubstantiated "facts''. A degree is more necessary than ever, but not half as valuable as it used to be. And, it is true. Mostly.

The past two decades have witnessed a staggering change.

Between 1996 and 2016, the number of people getting degrees or other university qualifications has risen as fast as a mortar board flung in the air at graduation.

In 1996, about 15,000 people graduated with a degree, the Ministry of Education says. By 2016, there were more than 28,000 graduates a year, an increase of 85%.

And when it comes to higher qualifications, the growth has been even more spectacular.

Over the same period, the number of people each year getting a bachelor's degree with honours has climbed 111% and those getting post-graduate diplomas are up 128%.

In 2016, 6115 people were given a master's degree, a 180% increase on 1996 numbers. But the biggest gains belong to PhDs and other doctorates. In 1996, 305 doctorates were conferred. In 2016, it was 1310, a 329% jump.

This growth is not just a trick of the light, explained away by population growth. The country's population has grown strongly over that period. But the 23% increase in New Zealanders seems unimpressive against almost double the number of graduates with basic degrees, let alone the more than threefold lift in those entitled to put "Dr'' before their name.

First year student Esther Williams (18), of Christchurch, considered not going to university but...
First year student Esther Williams (18), of Christchurch, considered not going to university but changed her mind to sure up her career prospects. Photo: Bruce Munro

Today, in New Zealand, almost one in three people of working age has a university degree or equivalent.

It is no surprise then, that Esther Williams (18) has changed her mind and is now going to university.

This week, spending her first afternoon in Dunedin, enjoying the sun with friends at the Otago Museum reserve, the young Christchurch woman says she has enrolled to do a bachelor of arts in linguistics, Spanish and Japanese.

Until last year she was going to go to a polytechnic to study design.

"But I chose uni in the end, because I thought it would lead to more career options,'' Miss Williams says.

After graduating, she wants to work in language schools.

Why are Miss Williams and so many others going for degrees, and why are almost as many going for even higher qualifications?

Chris Whelan says that what has been called "qualification creep'' has become a full-blown degree "arms race''.

There are a bunch of factors driving this sea change, the Universities New Zealand chief director says.

A greater number of employers, who in the past did not require prospective employees to have a university degree, now do. When an employer is trying to sort through 200 applications for two positions, whether the prospective employee has a degree or not becomes an easy way to begin the culling process, he says.

Parents are also pushing degrees.

A study looking at why young people go to university, commissioned by Universities NZ, shows that 86% of parents encourage their kids to get a university qualification. This rises to 93% of parents who themselves have a degree. The main reason they give is improved employment prospects.

It is all extremely circular, like a dog chasing its tail.

The more that employers cull CVs on the basis of a tertiary education, the more young people will feel compelled to get a degree. More young people with degrees equates to more future parents urging their children to do the same. And more people flashing their degree-laden CVs about only means more people climbing to the next rung, master's and PhDs, in order to try to get an edge as they compete for jobs.

This inflationary pressure means the humble degree is now also quantifiably meeker.

Chris Whelan, executive director of Universities New Zealand, says many employment doors will not open without a degree. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Chris Whelan, executive director of Universities New Zealand, says many employment doors will not open without a degree. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Between 2001 and 2013, while the number of people with degrees increased more than 90%, the average income of those with degrees dropped 12%.

Mr Whelan explains.

Firstly, lower-paying jobs that 15 years ago did not require a degree, now do, pulling down the average graduate wage, he says. On top of that, a greater number of people with degrees means an abundance of qualified people to do jobs, allowing employers to drive down wages and still fill positions.

On the plus side, sort of, Mr Whelan says that in New Zealand 11.7% of graduates are working in jobs that do not require degrees, whereas the figure is about 20% in the United Kingdom and about 38% in the United States.

It is hard to identify which factor is most responsible for swelling graduand ranks, Mr Whelan says. But picking where the dog's head and tail meet is less important than understanding the situation and responding wisely to it, he adds.

"When it comes down to it, we're in a society where more and more people are getting educated.

"Most of your career is momentum based. When you apply for your next job, they are looking at what you've done to date, what your qualifications are, what your potential is ... If you want to get that big leg-up in the world, it starts with the best possible skills or qualifications you can get.

"You aren't going to get through a lot of doors without a degree.''

Suck it up and join the chase.

It is hard to argue with. It turns out that Mr Whelan's comments, echoing the general perception that degrees pay dividends, are also borne out by the facts.

Micah Woodfield, of Christchurch, hopes plenty of study and a stated preference for pharmacy will...
Micah Woodfield, of Christchurch, hopes plenty of study and a stated preference for pharmacy will be a winning strategy to get through the highly competitive first year health science course and on to his desired career path. Photo: Bruce Munro

During their working life, someone with a degree will, on average, earn $1.4 million more than the average non-graduate. If you are a medical doctor, a professional engineer or an information technology graduate, the advantage is bigger still; $2 million for IT, $3 million for engineer and $4 million for doctor. Against the average graduate's student loan of $21,000, that doesn't seem too bad. With a fee-free first year introduced this year, the sums look even better.

And job security, as well as earning power, favours the degree-holder.

Unemployment among graduates runs at less than 2%. For the whole working-age population it is more like 4% to 5%.

Future pharmacist, Micah Woodfield (18), of Christchurch, is fully on board.

He has enrolled in Otago's competitive health science course, the narrow gate giving select entrance to the university's medical and pharmacy schools.

Mr Woodfield did well in chemistry at high school and is interested in human health. Pharmacy seems like the natural fit.

He knows many more people take health science than get through to medicine or pharmacy. So, he plans to study hard. He has also heard that picking the "pharmacy only'' option, gives you a better chance, so that is what he has done.

Jackie Dean, university Career Development Centre manager, says employers are looking for skills gained from extracurricular activities as well as academic study. PHOTO: ODT FILE
Jackie Dean, university Career Development Centre manager, says employers are looking for skills gained from extracurricular activities as well as academic study. PHOTO: ODT FILE

Pharmacists are in demand and paid well, he says. Those with more than five years experience usually earn between $75,000 and $105,000 a year.

"But primarily, I'm taking pharmacy because I'm interested in it,'' Mr Woodfield says.

"The pay is just a nice bonus.''

If the perceived wisdom that degrees are increasingly vital and higher degrees increasingly valuable is true, some caveats still need to be added, say those in the know.

In the headlong pursuit of master's degrees and PhDs, students need to know that employers are looking for more than just a string of letters after a name.

Jackie Dean, who is manager of the University's Career Development Centre, says employers want graduates whose life skills and experiences, as well as their marks, show they "stand out from the crowd''.

"Make sure you take advantage of opportunities to develop additional transferable or employability skills,'' Mrs Dean says.

"These can be gained from leisure and sporting activities, part time work, vacation employment, volunteering on or off-campus, employability and leadership awards, internships, taking part in exchange programmes, to name a few.''

She adds that the best way to become good at something and find your niche in the workplace is still to follow your interests.

"You may look at your options and feel that certain jobs have high kudos, high earnings potential, but if that area of study holds no interest to you, or you do not have strengths and interests in that area of study, then it will be difficult to sustain full-time study in that area.''

Zaena Al-Kawaji, of Dunedin, who is in her second year of a Bachelor of Commerce degree in marketing and communications, believes her passion and drive will help secure work. Photo: Bruce Munro
Zaena Al-Kawaji, of Dunedin, who is in her second year of a Bachelor of Commerce degree in marketing and communications, believes her passion and drive will help secure work. Photo: Bruce Munro

Zaena Al-Kawaji (19) plans to use interest and passion to help her stand out in the job market.

Miss Al-Kawaji attended Columba College and is about to begin the second year of a BCom in marketing and communications.

She wants to own her own business, but recognises the need to get some experience first.

She is not planning on studying beyond graduate level, but does not think that will matter.

"I'm going to stand out because I'm really interested in marketing and really passionate about it,'' Miss Al-Kawaji says.

"It's about how much drive you have, and I want to be the best I can be.''

Graduates honing broader skills is good. But a more fundamental shift is needed.

Dr Sandra Grey, New Zealand Tertiary Education Union president, says a public conversation is...
Dr Sandra Grey, New Zealand Tertiary Education Union president, says a public conversation is needed about our love affair with degrees. Photo: supplied

Dr Sandra Grey is president of the Tertiary Education Union. There are probably several things that she and Mr Whelan do not see eye-to-eye on. But this is not one of them. Both agree we, as a nation, are over-qualified and need to focus more on skills than gongs.

"For some reason, and not a very good one, the academic part of the world is seen as the only way,'' Dr Grey says.

"But it really depends on the job and on the person. And I think that is something we haven't talked about at all.

"We need that conversation with communities and with employers ... I think there is an opportunity at the moment because we have a recognition that there is something of an imbalance.''

Mr Whelan says it is true that you don't need an education to get a job.

"But if you want a high-paying job with good job security you are nuts if you don't get skilled or educated,'' he says.

"It doesn't matter whether its an apprenticeship or a degree, at end of the day you are going to earn a lot more if you have a highly skilled job that requires judgement, problem solving and making things.
"That's a builder, plumber or policy analyst or management consultant; they all have very good employment prospects. All the demand is for skilled work.''

Jack Hall, of Auckland, who is at the start of a computer science degree at the University of Otago, believes social skills in addition to tertiary training will help him stand out from the crowd. Photo: Bruce Munro
Jack Hall, of Auckland, who is at the start of a computer science degree at the University of Otago, believes social skills in addition to tertiary training will help him stand out from the crowd. Photo: Bruce Munro

Jack Hall (19), of Auckland, had heard it said that going straight from school to work was a better idea than further training or study. He discovered that "fact'' was a lie.

"I'd always thought I'd go straight to work because you could start earning straight away and so uni was a waste of time,'' Mr Hall said.

But after three months of pulling a pay packet he had a change of mind.

"I wasn't earning much and I didn't want the rest of my life to be like that,'' he recalls.

He is now flatting on Castle St and is in the first year of a computer science degree. He hopes to be one of those IT specialists who is in demand and handsomely rewarded.

He is unlikely to do post-graduate study. But he knows IT is competitive and is not relying on his degree to get hired.

"You definitely have to stand out in this field to get a job, because there are so many others in other countries, especially Third World countries, who can do the job,'' Mr Hall says.

"The thing that can make you stand out is not just being a robot typing away, but the social skills to communicate with others, the ability to work in a team. It also helps if you have some marketing skills to bring to the table as well.''

And he is not just in it for the money.

"I like the idea of having flexibility. And this would be a job that I could do anywhere and with flexible hours.

"The pay is not as important as the lifestyle.''

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The employers are calling the shots. Talk to them.

 

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