Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Ivory towers lose their lustre

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Book learnin' gets no respect. But maybe the universities should do more to deserve it.

'Maybe we could go back to being unashamedly elitist and get rid of the dumbed-down varsity idea ... that everyone ought to get a degree.' Illustration / Anna Crichton
'Maybe we could go back to being unashamedly elitist and get rid of the dumbed-down varsity idea ... that everyone ought to get a degree.' Illustration / Anna Crichton

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you gather together a bunch of blokes of a certain age who have started their own businesses, sooner or later, after discussing compliance costs, the RMA and the new-model BMW, one of them will say something like: "I never went to university and it never did me any harm." In business circles, it's common to be distrustful of that book learnin'.

University is synonymous not with success and achievement, but with "sucking on the public teat" (not my expression, trust me) and angry women. Real people learn at the university of life. So I feel rather sheepish telling anyone that I am going back to university fulltime next year, rather than doing something economically righteous like selling merino jockstraps online.

Funnily enough, those BMW-driving business owners may, without taking a breath, also have a medium-sized moan about not being able to get staff with the right skills.

Join any dots there, chaps? Then again, maybe, like me, they think some things about our tertiary education sector are a bit thick.

Yes, please insert apologetic shrug here; I know ivory towers are not really a top priority in our dire times. But why do we have so many universities bombarding us with expensive advertising campaigns? Massey University tells me on television and buses that rugby is one of our "most innovative industries". AUT is the university for the changing world. The University of Otago will find you your place in the world. The University of Auckland is New Zealand's leading university, apparently. It's all a bit unseemly. And surely they should just be picking the kids with the best grades rather than enticing any punter in like they're the home-shopping network?

Millions of dollars of Vote Education funds are going to marketing departments that might be better spent on science labs and world-class lecturers. Now we have accepted that some free-market policies do not work in every facet of the economy, can we reassess whether having umpteen universities competing with each other is such a spiffing idea?

Massey University spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising, but when I rang up there was no one to answer the phone so I could, you know, enrol. Maybe we should just have one university, a kind of university Fonterra, which might have half a chance at being world-class. And maybe we could go back to being unashamedly elitist and get rid of the dumbed-down varsity idea, introduced by Labour under then-education minister Steve Maharey, that everyone ought to get a degree.

See, I do agree with the old codgers about something: not everyone should go to university, but those who do should be held to high standards. Having a New Zealand university degree doesn't really have much cachet any more, which is why in certain circles it is now de rigueur to send clever kids overseas for a "proper" university education.

While we are at it, maybe we should do something to stop churning out quite so many lawyers? Although everyone talks about the importance of education in lifting productivity, there is also a widespread anti-intellectual attitude to studying anything that doesn't have some direct correlation with earning a crust. It's those BMW-driving business owners again who would laugh at the suggestion they are threatened by tweed-jacketed lecturers, but you know what? I think secretly they feel a bit miffed they never got a chance to go, too.

dhc@deborahhillcone.com

* Illustration by Anna Crichton: illustrator@annacrichton.com

- NZ Herald

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