• Derek McCormack is vice-chancellor of the Auckland University of Technology.

This week Auckland University of Technology is celebrating 4500 new graduates at a time that has seen a lot of media interest in the value of getting a university degree. We've read open letters from employers saying you don't need a degree to get a job. And research from an industry training organisation saying that you can do as well with a trade as a degree, and maybe better.

I think the point that is missed in all this is that most people don't wish to, or attempt to, go to university, and that is as it should be. University isn't for everyone. Twice as many young people don't go to university as go. So the idea that you don't need to go to university to get a job is really just stating what is obviously the case, rather than a startling new insight.

Furthermore, the employers preaching this gospel are doing so in a buoyant employment market at a time that it is hard for them to find employees. They need employees right now, not after they've spent three or four years getting a degree, and it might be in their interests for more people to seek employment in certain types of work, rather than going on to years of study.


However, society needs graduates and encouraging young people to rule out university is short-sighted. Nurses, dentists, doctors, health professionals of all kinds, analysts, accountants, engineers, technologists, designers, teachers, social workers, scientists, lawyers amongst many others need the education they get at university and the qualification they end up with in order to practise their profession.

As well, many other professions and enterprises benefit from a university education even if a degree is not a basic requirement for a position in them. We all need the supply line of graduates to continue.

Another point to note is that New Zealand doesn't have a huge number of graduates compared with other OECD countries. It sits at around the average for graduates per capita. So an argument that we are overdoing university education and should discourage young people from pursuing it needs justifying.

Much the same could be said about tradespeople. Society needs plumbers, electricians, carpenters and builders, butchers, hairdressers among many others. Clearly there are ebbs and flows in the need for some of these skilled practitioners. At the moment we don't seem to have enough in some trades. So they are being promoted.

But, young people thinking about their futures are not necessarily assisted by opinionated statements from lobby groups with particular interests. As a vice-chancellor I represent one of those interest groups and so I need to be cautious about encouraging anyone to just go to university. I would, however, encourage everyone who has the ability and aspiration to think about university as a good option, alongside others that might interest them.

University education costs time and money. So does trades training. But employment rates and career income are enhanced. Just leaving school for a job is a good option for many who have no interest or desire for more education and training. Having a job is a good start to a career, with the experience and wages and the early learning of the general skills and the habits required for working well. Some employers will also offer excellent opportunities to learn the relevant specific skills while at work with good mentoring and support arrangements.

Overall, however, the statistics show that on average a graduate does better over a career lifetime, than someone with no or lesser educational qualifications – better in employment, income, health and life expectancy. Of course, that is the average experience and doesn't apply in every case, just in the main.

The advantage for graduates and those with further qualifications is likely to increase. The number of low and semi-skilled jobs in the New Zealand employment market is in the minority and projected to decrease further. A good qualification for a skilled profession or trade will be more not less valuable over the next few years.

As well as all that, both university and trade training give additional personal advantages of character development and the acquisition of capabilities, knowledge and understandings that are generally useful and enhance life, its enjoyment and possibilities in many ways.

Let's not staunch the important desire of our young people to take their education and capability as far as they can for their benefit and ours. Post-school education options of trade training and a university degree should not be pitted against one another. Both are valuable, to the learner and to the society in which they live.