Steven Joyce is not the first Tertiary Education Minister to be frustrated by the discrepancy between the courses offered by universities and what the country needs. Nor is he the first minister to threaten government coercion if the universities do not take on more engineering and science students. Common sense suggests, after all, that the skills of many graduates should be attuned to the demands of the economy. And any competitive edge potentially available to the country from the innovation and creativity of graduates in these fields will never eventuate if this is not happening.
Mr Joyce has good reason for concern. Only 5570, or 4.3 per cent of the New Zealand students studying for bachelors' degrees last year, were in engineering, compared with 67,300 in society and culture fields such as languages, law and social sciences. On average, engineers comprise 12 per cent of all tertiary graduates in OECD developed nations. The Government sought to address this skills shortage in the latest Budget by allotting an extra $42 million to engineering and $17 million to science at universities and polytechnics. Funds for all other subjects were frozen.
However, in a nod towards preserving the autonomy of universities, this money was bulk funded. According to the Auckland University vice-chancellor, Stuart McCutcheon, the university does not, therefore, have to put it all into engineering and science, and will not do this because it would make many people in areas such as the arts and law redundant. Any shifting of the balance would also, he says, affect the participation rates of Maori and Pacific students, who, typically, do arts and education degrees.
Mr Joyce has made it plain that he is prepared to intervene. "If they [the universities] want us to be more directive, I'm more than willing," he says. "I'm watching them really closely to make sure they respond to what the market wants, and if they don't, I can go and tell them how many they should enrol for each department." Obviously, there is all the more the temptation for such action in a struggling economy in which suitably qualified engineers and scientists are scarce, while many qualified people in the likes of law and education cannot find jobs in their chosen fields.
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Mr Joyce needs to take a step back, however. The heavy hand of Government should not be necessary. Secondary school pupils preparing to go to university should be well aware of the areas of the economy that offer the best career path. And they will not want to emerge from university jobless and burdened by a student loan. Therefore, they should not so much have to be steered away from arts or the law as have any natural inclination towards engineering reinforced.
That job should fall to secondary school teachers, who can get pupils enthused about a particular field and inspire them to pursue it, or, more particularly, career counsellors at the school and university level. Their advice on the job market will, more often than not, back up what students have decided for themselves. Universities can also play a part by ensuring enough high-quality courses are available and that they boast research facilities which act as a further inspiration. In an age where student loans mean degrees cannot be an end in themselves, the Government should not have to go out of its way to tailor university degrees to its economic objectives. Nor should it be intruding on universities' academic independence. Mr Joyce should be able to rely on the education sector to provide the sort of vocational guidance that will underline students' own conclusions.