Pat Walsh: Value of uni education extends beyond income

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The Ministry of Education report on how much graduates earn after completing university is only one part of the puzzle.

Everyone would agree that it is beneficial for students to have as much information as possible to help them make the often difficult decision about which career path to choose, and I agree that it is important that students consider potential salary when choosing their area of study. But it should not be the only consideration. Students need to explore what they are interested in and what they are good at.

Moreover, placing sole focus on earnings from different degrees and subjects risks losing sight of the overall value of a New Zealand university degree.

There is no doubt that tertiary education, particularly at the university level, is a worthwhile investment for young New Zealanders and provides an excellent return in both economic and social terms for the Government's investment in tertiary education.

Studies around the world demonstrate that university graduates, whatever the subject or level of study, have higher wages than workers with no qualifications. The ministry report itself - Moving On Up - What Young People Earn After Their Tertiary Education - highlights, for instance, that very few young people who complete a tertiary qualification are on a benefit five years after study.

In fact, the typical scenario is that five years after leaving study, most young graduates will be earning above the median wage.

The report also recognises that study leads to many benefits beyond income and employment such as better health and well-being.

Society needs people from a range of backgrounds with a variety of skills. We need people who are able to look at the important issues we face, such as the environment, from different perspectives.

And it's not only issues that need this perspective - the prosperity of New Zealand relies on diverse skill sets. Just one example is working more closely with China, where we need people with an understanding of business, international politics, culture and languages to be successful on this front.

It's worth noting, too, that the general skills learned at university set up graduates well for their careers. My own university, Victoria, aims to instil in all our graduates the skills of leadership, communication, and creative and critical thinking. Whether you are a graduate in arts or economics, design or science, core skills like these are valuable across all industries and for society more broadly.

One thing that will help inform students' decisions and government investment in education is a wide-ranging study commissioned by Universities New Zealand - the group that represents the nation's eight universities - that is examining the progress of graduates in those all-important years immediately after graduation.

A world-first in its scope, the Graduate Longitudinal Study of New Zealand was launched in 2011 and is following almost 9000 - or one in five - graduates for a decade. The study involves a randomly selected sample that is broadly representative of the 40,000 students who completed programmes at all eight universities in 2011.

It will examine a broad range of graduate outcomes, in addition to income and employment, such as physical health and community participation.

Interestingly, when it comes to the topic of earnings, initial results show that students' main reasons for choosing a discipline are interest in the topic (77.1 per cent) and the availability of relevant courses (70 per cent). Earning potential ranked much lower at 32 per cent.

That surely says something about the choices of individual students and the real value of university education.

Professor Pat Walsh is chair of Universities New Zealand - Te Pokai Tara, and Vice-Chancellor of Victoria University of Wellington.

Dialogue: Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submissions to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

- NZ Herald

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