What is the value of degrees and why do we need them? And how might micro-credentials, shorter bite-sized "bits" of learning, better meet employer and student needs?

These questions have been the subject of media scrutiny and public discussion over recent days.

Kicked off by a group of New Zealand's major employers publicly declaring they want to hire workers without qualifications, the comments have thrown down a gauntlet to existing providers, including universities.

The urgent demand for "contemporary knowledge", a shortage of workers and the need to fill critical skills gaps means, the employers argue, that businesses simply cannot afford to wait for students to complete degrees.


I suspect that universities would agree that degree learning has its place, but there is also room for shorter, more portable chunks of learning, especially in technical subjects and applied education.

Not all jobs require a university degree and we should be open to a "horses for courses" approach.

This is not arguing for any sort of elitism with regards to a university education, but it is recognising that we need to embrace - not deflect - new, disruptive opportunities to extend the opportunities for school-leavers and mature learners alike to realise their potential through a life-changing learning experience.

University qualifications have value and will continue to hold value. Preparing students for their lives as citizens, as well as for future careers, delivers huge benefits to our communities.

And there is good data to back this up. A Universities New Zealand study undertaken in 2016 found that just two years out from graduation, close to 80 per cent of graduates said that getting a degree had been worth the effort, time and cost involved.

After just two years in the workforce, university graduates had a median income of $40,000-$50,000 per annum, which compares well with the median annual income of all those in paid employment of $44,000 - and better than the overall 25-29 age group median of $37,440.

Moreover, graduates ranked the benefits of a university education in the following order: personal development, obtaining employment and career development.

Not only did the study show very low unemployment rates among New Zealand graduates, other international surveys (including those undertaken in New Zealand) clearly demonstrate that a university education is associated with a range of benefits for families and communities, including reducing labour market inequalities and increasing civic participation.

Lest this sound too self-serving or defensive (of course, you might say, universities are bound defend their patch), we too want to welcome new ways of engaging with students and responding to industry and employer needs.

We also want to do this in a way that is compatible with our core mission of advancing learning, developing intellectual independence, delivering research-informed teaching, meeting international standards of research and teaching and, significantly, maintaining our key role as critic and conscience of society.

But the challenge of industry does pose the question: to what extent is our current tertiary system provider-led, as opposed to responding directly to industry and student needs? And are tertiary institutions (universities in particular) too focused on telling students what they need, rather than tailoring our offerings to meet market demands?

So, here's the rub: universities are distinctive precisely because the teaching they offer is informed by research.

That is what makes them different from other public and private providers. The "teaching-research" nexus is mandated in the Education Act 1989. Responding to market demands is one thing but marrying this with research intensity is another.

This is the tension - the balancing act - that universities face. It means universities are at a critical transition point.

On one hand, their teaching must be informed by pure and applied research, with internal processes that respect the value of collegial academic decision-making and principles such as academic freedom; on the other they are measured and funded on the basis of discrete performance measures, such as the rate and pace of student completions, meeting Government-identified areas of need, and responding quickly to student demand.

Speed (or lack of it) is a real issue and the current policy settings and approval processes do not always allow for swift decision-making. We often say to ourselves that we're in the business of preparing students for jobs that don't yet exist, yet we are all still figuring out what those jobs might be.

An emphasis on domain knowledge and mastery of content is still important, vital and critical in key professions, but increasingly the so-called "soft" skills - the ability to communicate, to work in teams, to demonstrate cultural and digital literacy - are going to be a crucial complement to the type of knowledge that we are in the business of sharing, creating and discovering with students.

So, it is not an either/or situation. In my view, universities should not be defensive about talk of micro-credentials; nor should we - in a kneejerk response - immediately leap to unbundle the structure of our current qualifications to join the micro-credential bandwagon.

There is a place for extended study over a three-year (or longer) period that provides content knowledge and the ability to develop as an independent learner.

New Zealand tertiary education performs extremely well on the international stage and we need to keep in mind the international "currency" of our degree programmes. But there is also room for other, more differentiated, learning opportunities. Universities have something to bring to the table in this regard.

* Professor Giselle Byrnes is assistant vice-chancellor research, academic and enterprise at Massey University.