Tuesday 29 August 2017

A Policy A Day: Tertiary Education Pathways

In the lead-up to the election, we are examining a policy a day. We're exploring a variety of policy areas, explaining the background and analysing some of the policy options, with a mixture of technocracy and values-based approaches. Inevitably, some opinion will make its way in and we make no apology for that - after all, we're voters too. A list of all the articles is available hereEnjoy!

Today's post is by Jenny Sahng

The problematic path
In New Zealand, few students shoot a clear, confident path from high school, through tertiary, to a meaningful career. Of the 146,000 domestic students at our universities alone, 16% do not complete their course. This figure rises to 28% in Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics (ITPs), and 46% in Wānanga. Although trying new things and changing directions within the tertiary sector can be formative for some, it is often more of a stressful, disillusioning, and ultimately costly experience for both the learner and the education budget. So what is it about our education system, which is really quite good on the whole, that leads to this dissatisfaction and lack of direction among young learners? How can we provide our high school leavers with enough information for them to make the best possible decision about their future? We’ll take a look at some of the reasons behind these issues, what our parties have to say, and which policies might work towards creating a more engaging and tailored careers system.

What’s blocking the way?
Everyone has talents, and everyone is unique [1]. A successful education system would complement this with a range of accessible pathways out of high school, to allow young people to realise their potential and contribute positively to our world. However, in a 2012 study, 9% of Kiwi high school students responded as being unsure, having no plans, or expecting to do nothing when it came to life after leaving school. What’s more, the percentage of New Zealand youth completing any form of tertiary education sits below the OECD average [2]. Education is about providing the right environment for people to flourish, but there seems to be a lack of coherence and facilitated transition between high school and tertiary study. Why?

1. Social pressures for/against certain pathways
You want to herd cats, not llamas, but everyone seems to think that cats are not very cool. Your entire family has been herding llamas for generations, and you’re expected to take over the family business. What’s more, herding cats is a tough job market, and people say that someone with your stamina and precision should really be going into llama herding.

Not everyone is suited to university, nor does everyone need an expensive and long degree to have an optimal career. Unfortunately, there is a certain stigma against polytechnics, apprenticeships, and other forms of tertiary education. This seems to push many high school leavers into universities as a default. A student who might really suit a certain career may feel pressured to go down a different path that is seen as more prestigious, lucrative, or “challenging”. This stops people from entering a role where they would be most productive and engaged, which - if you’ll excuse the utilitarian terms - could be considered an inefficient use of a valuable human resource. Not only that, but it can also damage a learner’s self-esteem and well-being, especially when they find themselves struggling in a learning environment that doesn’t work for them, or in a course that they don’t identify with. This combines with academic pressure, the financial cost of failure, rising living costs and the changing, business-like structure of universities which already make for a stressful environment. It’s probably reasonable to suggest that this could be a factor in the recent spike of mental health issues among university students. Although this is a broad social and cultural issue, better public education at an earlier stage on our fast-changing industries, and wider parent engagement on their child’s interests and skills may alleviate some of these pressures.

2. Barriers to accessibility
You’re fast. You’re agile. You can fall and land on your feet and you don’t even have a flexible spine. But you can’t afford to go to a cat herding dojo. You don’t actually know that much about what cat herding involves - they didn’t offer it as a subject at school, and no one within your network has ever done it. Someone once did tell you that cat herding involves a lot of rolling in poop, and you’re not so sure about that.

Many high school leavers who harbour valuable skills are unable to access any further education at all. While the student allowance and living cost loan are adjusted annually to somewhat reflect the cost of living, the $40 maximum accommodation benefit for students living away from home hasn’t changed since 2001 despite spiralling rent particularly in cities like Auckland and Wellington. Even with part-time work alongside full-time study, higher education becomes an unaffordable or incredibly stressful endeavour for students who aren’t able to access other financial aid such as parental help or scholarships. Other socioeconomic or personal barriers may also be at play, such as lack of exposure within their networks, misinformation or a lack of confidence in their abilities. Possible solutions to these barriers, aside from different funding options, may include mentorship programmes such as First Foundation, proactive careers information from unbiased sources, and more talk on occupations which focus on breaking stereotypes and conveying realistic industry expectations.

3. Lack of opportunity for developing soft skills
Despite all odds, you finally get into the cat herding dojo. But it’s not just about scaling trees and rubbing legs. You need to be able to meow, purr and hiss too! Everyone else grew up with cats, but your family couldn’t afford one. Turns out learning cat language when you’re an adult is really hard.

Speaking of industry expectations, one of the main purposes of tertiary education is to equip people for the workforce, but there’s always a rift between what is taught, and what employers want. “Soft skills” like the 4Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity) are a prime example. They’re often considered just as important as technical ability and need to be developed as early as possible. Not only are they necessary for the workforce, but they are also key to the independent, self-directed learning style that a lot of tertiary study requires. Despite their importance and impact on employability, not all students receive the same opportunities for developing such soft skills, further widening the gap between the rich and poor. For students from low-income backgrounds, getting involved in these skill-building experiences might not even be an option. Many students are unable to afford the cost of extra-curricular activities or have the time for summer internships. They may need to look after siblings and family or work significant part-time hours to support themselves or their household. On the other hand, students from higher income backgrounds have the freedom to pursue different activities, making them better equipped to market themselves as employable workers with transferable skills. We need to provide ways for all students to access that broad experience, both to enhance their learning and to develop these crucial life skills at an early age.

Long, winding and expensive
These issues in our tertiary sector cost us - they 
cost our young people, and they cost our government. Ensuring that our youth are guided down a post-secondary path that is right for them could reduce the funding that goes into paying for abandoned degrees, extra years, and repeated courses, saving taxpayers’ money for use elsewhere (health, infrastructure, avocado subsidies, etc.). After all, for every $6000 a student borrows in course fees, taxpayers have sunk another ~$24,000 in domestic fee subsidies to pay for the remainder of their tuition. It may also reduce the average time spent in tertiary education, meaning that people can start working, earning, and contributing faster. It maximises our productivity as human resources and creates a diverse talent market of engaged workers across a wide range of industries. Finally, reducing the number of people who become disengaged with the education system would likely have positive outcomes on public mental health, unemployment and life satisfaction.

What are the parties saying?
Honestly, I’m mildly impressed by the sheer range of education policies put forward by our parties this election. I have never, in all my years of being a millennial, had so many tabs open on so many windows. However, many of the most well-known education policies are funding-related (fees, loans [3], allowances etc.), which are very interesting and necessary, but don't really address the long-term health of our tertiary education sector (which is what I've decided to focus my word limit on). So here are three policies which I considered to be most relevant to the transition from secondary to further study or work [4].

1. Improving careers advice
Our current National government has been proactive about improving careers advice in schools. Over the last few years, they initiated a review of our current careers system, and are moving Careers New Zealand over to the Tertiary Education Commission as a result to consolidate scattered resources. This is an exciting move since a consistent and easily accessible platform would be an invaluable tool for students, teachers and careers advisors. However, some concerns have been raised about the risk of this move coupling our universities too tightly with industry, which is a valid point. National has been very keen on funnelling students down STEM pathways, like when they promoted tuition subsidies for “high-value subjects”. Although it is probably a good move to encourage diversification of our exports from primary industries, this continues to perpetuate the age-old stigma against subjects like the arts and our creative industries.

Labour proposes a slightly different policy on “transforming careers advice”, which aims to professionalise and integrate careers advice into the curriculum to improve its quality and consistency. Despite the estimated $30 million/year of implementing such a plan, I quite like its boldness. Providing highly-trained careers advisors for schools would be a critical step in developing a tailored career system that works to minimise misdirection (and therefore wasted fees) when leaving secondary education.

Finally, NZ First also considers the careers system to be a “priority focus area”, and promises to review Careers NZ funding and to enhance parent engagement. That all sounds great, but most of NZ First’s policies tend to be very general, and there’s no explanation of how they would implement these goals, so I don’t really know what to think about that one.

2. Continued investment in Secondary-Tertiary Programmes
The National government’s recent DualPathways pilot was an example of a Secondary-Tertiary Programme (STP) under the Youth Guarantee Scheme. These programmes partner schools with tertiary institutions and industry organisations to provide alternative pathways for senior high school students to achieve industry-focused qualifications at NCEA Level 2. This is particularly targeted at students who are at risk of leaving school with no qualifications. According to the Education Review Office’s 2015 report on these programmes, they found that STPs “made a very positive difference for students”, with 80% of students in 2013 making a successful transition from secondary school. The programmes are highly tailored to each individual, and there’s a lot of collaboration and communication between the school and the education provider to develop an integrated curriculum which complements their study at school. Finally, the programmes were promoted as a valid learning pathway through school assemblies, course booklets and careers evenings, which I imagine would remove stigma, legitimise the course, and promote the trades and careers that they lead to. This sounds to me like a recipe for success. Imagine if we could have such tailored pathways for all students!

In the National government’s recent response to the Productivity Commission’s report on new models of tertiary education (which is a fun, light read for those interested), it appears that they intend to continue supporting and funding these programmes. NZ First has also expressed their support for similar programmes.

3. Paid work experience for unemployed young people
The Māori Party, Labour, and NZ First are all offering similar policies which provide six months of paid work experience for unemployed young people. Labour and NZ First have similar policies which subsidise wages for employers who take on unemployed youth for community or environmental work. Although it is a seductive idea to fill job shortages in the Department of Conservation or the city council with unemployed youth, we need to ask how fencing waterways or riparian planting will truly develop the young person’s key skills. It seems to creep into the category of cheap (minimum wage) work. Labour even says in their Ready for Work policy fact sheet that these are jobs that NGOs and councils normally “cannot do because the labour cost is prohibitive”! While it’s not ideal for young people to be in unemployment for long periods of time, pressuring them into cheap labour roles is not the way to help them - especially not at the cost of $60 million per year.

The Māori Party’s “earn as you learn” job experience scheme is a similar 6-month programme, but there was no mention of the type of work involved. Unfortunately, there are very few details on how this scheme would actually look, other than its clear focus on bridging the gap for Māori and Pasifika youth [5].

It’s great to see these policies asserting paid work experience. Unpaid internships and “voluntary” work experience schemes exacerbate gaps in opportunity (some people can’t afford to work for free, and therefore have fewer opportunities for work experience). They also make room for exploitation and inevitably devalue the work of everyone in the industry in question. It’s definitely something that all industries in New Zealand should be rejecting. However, in the context of unemployed or disengaged youth, these paid work experience policies are clearly constrained by the cost of incentivising employers to provide unemployed youth with training and enriching work - the cost of training and paying for an unskilled worker, essentially. An alternative is an unpaid, training-based youth employment programme like National’s partnership with The Warehouse. While I would normally be opposed to any form of unpaid labour, the opportunity to earn NCEA credits and to practice communication and teamwork sounds much more likely to create long-term positive outcomes for the individual.

Tertiary education is not a factory that stamps its users with a qualification. It is a bustling, unique and diverse environment of inquiring minds, unbridled discovery, questioning debate, shared knowledge and rigorous training. These academic communities are only as strong as the engagement of their student bodies. It is the responsibility of our education system to ensure that all students make the most of this rich environment. This is not possible if our students are disengaged, stressed, and burdened by uncertainty about their future. We need to provide a web of accessible tertiary options, tailored career plans, exposure to a range of industries, and education on transferable life skills in order to create an effective tertiary education system that caters to everyone.

It appears that our political parties are largely focussed on what I would consider more short-term solutions of alleviating student hardship by reforming funding and financial support options. However, perhaps we could better combat these issues by also addressing the limitations of our current tertiary pathways which are causing these hardships. By guiding our high school leavers along a path that is best suited to their talents and needs, we are essentially implementing preventative measures to reduce the number of disillusioned students, and the amount of spending that goes into abandoned, transferred or unused qualifications. Policies around improving careers advice, secondary-tertiary transition programmes, and paid work experience opportunities need to be brought to the forefront of each party’s agenda and continually refined, not added as afterthoughts to supplement their flagship funding policies.

Jenny Sahng is a fledgeling software developer in Wellington. She loves coding because you can write some lines of code on a text editor and turn them into awesome things with a bit of creativity! She is not affiliated with any political organisation and is generally rather mystified by politics and public policy (at least until an election season rolls around), but is quite left-leaning, and has been involved in several youth-led education initiatives. Her interests include tramping, Harry Potter (always), salsa dancing, and patting dogs (yes, dogs, not cats).

[1] Editor: citation needed.
[2] Yes, I realise it’s an average, and yes, Korea is busting that average for everyone. But you get the picture. I mean, we’re way behind the Aussies and that hurts.
[3] Read up on the drama following the Productivity Commission’s report earlier this year, which recommended reinstating student loan interest. Bold move.
[4] This does eliminate some parties that don’t have any transition-related policies, namely Greens, United Future and Act, so do check out their stances on other issues in education.
[5] This policy was actually part of a rebuttal to the “bootcamp” policy put forward just last month by National (and a similar bill proposed earlier this year by NZ First) for serious youth offenders. As Māori Party candidate for Tāmaki Makaurau Shane Taurima emphasised, “Their plans [to put youth offenders in bootcamps] will impact the hardest on Māori and Pasifika rangatahi and whānau, and perpetuates the injustice and abuse our people already and continue to experience, in state care.”

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