Ch-ch-changes: Are you – or your child – doing the best course?

Most university classes start today... but is university the smart way to go? And which training leads to the best incomes? Two pieces of research can help you make a wise choice... or even change paths

It isn't too late for university students to change their courses for this year; new students are still likely to be able to change their degrees. At most universities, changes are allowed for the first two, even three, weeks of the semester. While it's a nightmare for university staff, it's a chance for students to rethink and adjust given new information from the government.

Occupation Outlook 2016 has appeared in February, and is a ‘should read’ for anybody serious about making or advising on a career direction.

The bad news for little boys wanting to grow up to be a firefighter is that currently job prospects are low. Another favourite, astronaut, doesn’t feature at all in the New Zealand work, and nor does ‘professional athlete’. (Pro-athlete is the current number one choice for children over nine years-old in America according to a ‘nationwide survey of 500 children’ reported by at the end of last year.)

Television has a lot to answer for, and probably also explains the number two choice for those over ten: chef/baker. Prospects are high for employment in New Zealand in the chef category; fees and income moderate. Of course there are always exceptions to the average, and the prospect of becoming a Master Chef or My Kitchen Rules judge keeps the dream alive.

The children in the American survey are at least eight years away from tertiary education, and a decade away from employment, so it's highly likely that their choice of career will change. It does appear, however, that the pressure to make career decisions is occurring earlier and earlier. NCEA subjects directly aligned with a career can be a useful pathway into the workforce, but could also be a ‘dead-end’ if there is a glut in the market for that type of qualification. In addition, there's increasing evidence that people will have several ‘careers’ and need an education that provides a solid platform for changes of direction.

Occupation Outlook does give some assistance in thinking. For students choosing NCEA subjects and enrolling in courses at tertiary institutions, the ‘Outlook’ is an important resource. For their parents it is invaluable – it shows the balance between job prospects, income and fees; it helps to assess the ‘short term pain for long term gain’ factor. And though, of course, their child is uniquely gifted – the employees/talent scouts might not be quite so convinced…. Occupation Outlook helps with reality.

The second piece of research germane to decision-making released this month came from Universities New Zealand. Analysis of the earnings, employment status and qualifications of 2.15 million people in the workforce at the time of the 2013 census supports the general understanding that the more educated you are, the more you earn and the less likely you are to be unemployed.

Universities New Zealand could be considered to have a bias in encouraging students to consider university, but the facts speak for themselves: a typical university graduate will earn approximately $1.6 million more over their working life than a non-graduate.  A medical doctor will earn $4 million more, and professional engineers $3million. At the time of the 2013 census, people with degrees were earning 40% more than those with a school level final qualification.

It is the general understanding of the ‘education drives the economy’ link that underpins the push to greater education in the workforce around the world. More people working in good jobs means, at least in theory, more money circulating in the economy and greater potential for economic development for the country.

This is why the government still pays on average two-thirds of the fees bill, and supports the allowances and student loans; universities and benefactor groups create scholarships. OECD data indicate that 85% of students in New Zealand benefit from public loans and scholarships, topped only by the UK at almost 90%. But the UK fees are US$9000 whereas New Zealand’s fees are just over US$4000.

The national drive is to achieve an educated workforce, leading to a vibrant economy

What is often not mentioned in analysis of income by degree is the age groups involved and the rigour in the qualification the baby boomers gained versus that currently on offer. Baby boomers going to university were less than 10% of school leavers. Now 58% of domestic school leavers go on to university, and another 30% go to a 2-3 year qualification. At 88% involvement New Zealand has one of the highest rates in the OECD. Completion rate for domestic students is 58% in comparison with 46% in the OECD.

In order to cope with the ‘massification of education’ tertiary institutions have changed. They’ve had to in the face of squeezed budgets. New Zealand spends just under US$14,000 per tertiary student; the OECD average is US$15,000.

Making tertiary education free, as suggested by the Labour Policy, could result in considerable unforeseen consequences – like a deterioration in the quality of what could be offered, the creation of more ‘cheap-to-run’ courses in response to apparent student demand, or a significant withdrawal of funds from some other portfolio with implications for delivery of outcomes there.

Or increased taxation.

Of further consideration is that ‘free’ is often associated with ‘not valued’; it is skin in the game that creates the drive. New Zealand already has too many stories of incentives to join education programmes (such as free computers, subsidised chainsaws and access to student loans) that do not result in a successful outcome.
The reward in education should be in the education itself, leading to a satisfying career.

The reward for the teachers and lecturers is in working with their students to prepare them for what lies ahead.

Occupation Outlook indicates that for secondary teachers, fees are average, job prospects average and income very good with a starting salary of over $49,000 and a projection of 13% growth in employment over the next ten years.

Teacher was number 4 in the top 10 for ‘what kids want to be when they grow up’.

A description for ‘tertiary lecturer’ doesn’t appear in Occupation Outlook, but Universities New Zealand indicates that earnings for those with Doctoral qualifications were 22% more than for those with masters or honours degrees. Masters and honours give 9% more in the workforce than a straight Bachelor’s degree.

It is the extra income that brings in (at least in theory) extra tax funds for the government so that it can invest more in education, health and welfare services, plus infrastructure. And economic development follows.

Whatever the chosen path of the young, whether it be ‘super-hero’, ‘don’t know’, or even just ‘taller’ there is information to help; doing the research assists with making the right choice first time.

And it isn’t too late to change.