• Dr Stuart Middleton is specialist adviser to the chief executive at Manukau Institute of Technology.
Those working in the tertiary education sector have known for some time that numbers of students in tertiary institutions have been dropping. This was confirmed last week in an announcement that the scale of that drop was 12.5 per cent. Furthermore, we are told the reduction has been predominantly in the sub-degree programmes.
New Zealand has a skill shortage and a mix of qualifications at both sub-degree and degree level is clearly required to give young people a pathway to the future, one which is characterised by employment, a family sustaining wage and prospects for developing a career.
The notions of "seamless pathways" and "managed transitions" - the developments that led to the introduction of trades academies and the dual pathway programmes - allow students to study at both a secondary and a tertiary level.
So, it is of concern if the number of young students entering tertiary education programmes at sub-degree levels is reduced. It is a simple fact that in order to proceed to higher levels of education and training, it is necessary to systematically take the appropriate steps up the ladder.
A ladder that is missing a set of steps in the middle is no ladder at all.
The number of people not in employment education or training (referred to as "NEETs") in New Zealand is a statistic that is both stubborn and a matter of dispute especially when politicians enter a duel with statistics as weapons. While it is difficult to be adamant about the total of NEETs in New Zealand, it could be as high as 90,000. What is beyond doubt is that the number is not shrinking and is alarmingly high. This number of 15 to 24 year olds exacerbates skill shortages, impacts on productivity and is harming all of us.
People settle into learning at different points in their lives. To offer one shot at getting onto the rungs of the skills ladder is cruel and short-sighted. Many of those who become NEETs do not want to be in a school and some will have left school prior to the official school leaving age. Another stubborn statistic - about 20 per cent of 16-year-old youths are no longer in a school on their 16th birthday.
There is evidence that offering "school level" programmes in a tertiary setting does meet their needs, is successful, and sees them moving seamlessly onto employment level qualifications. The trades academies, dual pathway programmes and the MIT Tertiary High School are all evidence that if you change the setting and manage the transition, pathways will emerge for students who might otherwise hit the wall.
It is not a smart move, nor is it long-term effective use of funding to deny students lower level courses in tertiary settings.
The argument might be that a school level course should only be in a school and that transition to tertiary should see a move into a course of study at a higher level. This has a ring of the sensible but it ignores several factors. A number of students do not fulfil their potential in a school setting - that is a fact. Others change their minds as they finish school on the pathway that they would like to pursue. Still others have harvested credits and have Level 1 or a Level 2 but it lacks integrity and appropriateness for the pathway chosen.
Such students need to repeat a level in a subject more appropriate to their chosen future and which is likely to be needed for entry. That is how a pathways and transition approach works. Students who need to move sideways in order to go forward can do so - and this is usually at a lower rather than a higher level.
The latest news of falling numbers is a challenge to those of us charged with developing an education and training system that offers all our young people access to opportunities and further learning.
Only through the creation of seamless pathways between school, tertiary training and work can we meet this challenge.