It's time to realign our educational aspirations with economic reality.

Just 21 years ago, at universities throughout New Zealand, the student allowance was truly universal. Everyone got paid enough to make studying for a broad-based Bachelor's degree enjoyable, which passed the time nicely until you really had to decide what to do with your life.

Just one year later, scholars of all stripes thought they'd hit the jackpot when student loans were introduced. Little did we realise the crushing debt we'd be under - and the burden unpaid student loans would add to the country's debt load.

I think "living in la-la land" is almost precisely what we were doing in those heady times. "Go on, get a loan, take everything on offer - the Labour Government will wipe the balance in the next election" chirped my nearest and dearest.

Not only did Labour not wipe the student loan system, they failed to win the election. We were stuck with loans, degrees that enlarged our horizons but narrowed our liquidity, and an ever-sagging job market.


It took me all my twenties and some of my thirties to pay off my $25K student loan. My own children will be thinking far more about the debt they're taking on than I ever did - and that's a good thing. You'd hope also that our children will have parents who understand the need to supplement our children's tertiary aspirations; a KiwiSaver-style savings scheme for education would be worth promoting, and encouraging with incentives.

However, it may not be enough to counter the drubbing that tertiary education is currently getting in the eyes of many parents. How many of us, raised on the mantra that university education was the holy grail, now find ourselves nonplussed at the idea of our children becoming plumbers or builders? Excited even, if it means we can spend less on our latest do-up.

In the US, the latest Merrill Edge report, which surveys adults earning between US$50,000 - US$250,000 (the "middle-class"), found 20 per cent of them now feel a college education is not a worthwhile investment. In a country most short of welders, air traffic controllers and farmers (and saturated in social science and commerce graduates) it is a sad, but understandable reaction. And it is surely one that will eventually be shared in New Zealand, where communications and commerce students stream out of universities and into a job market that simply cannot absorb them.

And yet other sectors are crying out for takers. Agriculture is one area where the lack of graduates is appalling and, frankly, baffling, for a country that says it will continue to generate the bulk of its income from primary industries. It doesn't seem to have the sexy cachet other sectors possess, and yet is working at the cutting edge of science, technology and business acumen. Those who hope to lead the sector will need substantial qualifications.

In order to fulfil these areas of urgent need, the strategy Steven Joyce appears to be promoting will need to reach right into secondary schools and actively pull through the right candidates - and the right number of candidates. All of us - parents, schools, career counsellors and industry itself - will need to get wise if this strategy has any hope of succeeding.

* Illustration by Anna Crichton: