If you're looking for a qualification, it's a daunting job deciding what course to study and where to do it. As school leavers and older workers alike consider their options for 2021, Simon Collins and Kirsty Wynn give some timely advice in part two of a three-part series.
First choose your niche, then look for the courses that will get you there - that's the advice from IT recruiter Matt Love-Smith.
Choosing a training course can be a nightmare. Type "bachelor of commerce" into the Careers NZ list of courses, and you get 102 courses to choose from at 28 institutions including all of our eight universities and 15 of our 16 polytechnics.
Even a narrower choice, bachelor of computer science, brings up 46 options at 24 institutions.
Love-Smith, an IT recruiter for Christchurch-based The Talent Hive, says employers are actually looking for practical skills rather than a broad education.
"Some of the companies we are working with are looking for extremely niche skills in AI [artificial intelligence] or agritech or robotics," he says.
"You are never going to be able to cover all those things in an education environment, but that is what employers are demanding now - very, very specific skills. My advice would be almost to identify a very specific area."
David Fleming, chief executive of a company that recruits for the aged-care sector, Medcall, advises people to "become an expert in something - you can always generalise later".
"I went to polytech myself and came out with a degree in business through the Open Polytechnic, and did an MA through Sydney University later," he says.
"In business courses you are covering everything from accounting to finance to management to strategy, in three years you know a little bit about lots of things.
"I wish I had learned coding, I wish that had been a compulsory part of my business degree, because so much of business now is digital."
There's no shortage of data to help you choose the best course.
The NZ Qualifications Authority (NZQA) evaluates the educational performance of all training institutions other than universities on a four-grade scale, ranging from category 1 ("highly confident" in their performance) down to category 4 ("not confident").
Just over half of the 401 institutions (213), including most of the polytechnics, are in category 1.
But 157 are in category 2 ("confident"), and 31, including Unitec and Tai Poutini Polytechnic, are currently in category 3 ("not yet confident"). There are none in category 4 because any that fall that low are quickly forced to close.
Our eight universities enjoy statutory independence from NZQA supervision, but are among 1000 to 1500 universities that are rated by three world rating agencies - Times Higher Education and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), both based in London, and the Shanghai-based Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU).
The University of Auckland, by far our biggest and richest university, is consistently ranked our best by all three agencies - currently 81st in the world in QS, 147th in Times and between 201st and 300th in the Shanghai ranking.
Auckland also dominates individual subject rankings, rated first or first-equal in New Zealand 84 times across the three ranking systems.
The University of Otago comes second, ranked first or first-equal in New Zealand 21 times, followed by Wellington's Victoria University (14 times), Massey (9), Canterbury (4) and AUT (2).
Our smallest universities, Waikato and Lincoln, are not rated first in any subject.
The Shanghai rankings are based purely on public information such as the winners of top academic prizes and how many times academics are quoted by other researchers ("citations") - a system that favours big universities because it is mostly not adjusted for size.
Times and QS do divide some measures by the number of academic staff. But they also use surveys of academics and employers about their opinions of universities, and both groups are more likely to have opinions about larger universities than smaller ones.
The Times survey asks academics to rate universities for the quality of both their teaching and research.
Auckland ranks highest for teaching, followed by Otago, Lincoln, Victoria, Waikato and Canterbury, with Massey and AUT last.
There are bigger differences in research, with Auckland well ahead of Otago, Victoria, Waikato, Canterbury, Massey and Lincoln. AUT comes last again.
The Ministry of Education also publishes data on the median earnings of graduates in each field of study from each training provider, and whether they are employed or on benefits, one, three, five, seven and nine years after graduation.
But this data shows only a weak tendency for Auckland and Otago graduates to earn more, each with the highest median incomes after nine years in three out of 12 fields of study researched for this article.
Victoria graduates have the highest ninth-year median incomes in two fields. AUT, Unitec, Weltec and Lincoln have the highest incomes in one field each, as analysed below.
There are only minor differences in median incomes in the first year, and there are virtually no graduates on jobseeker benefits in any field from any university in any year. Most are either employed in NZ or overseas, and some are caring for children.
Roger Smyth, a former manager of tertiary policy for the Ministry of Education, says students need to look for the best experts in their preferred niches at postgraduate level, but "if you are doing an undergraduate degree it really makes no difference".
"A university qualification has a certain type of culture and leads to a certain type of job," he says.
"So the institution you go to matters much less from an employment point of view than it matters from an environmental point of view. If you have got good living conditions, that matters more."
In New Zealand, most students go their nearest university or polytechnic, and most in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch still live at home with their parents.
Otago is our only general university that draws the vast majority (83 per cent) of its domestic students from outside its home city, Dunedin, including 52 per cent from the North Island, creating a unique hostel- and flatting-based culture.
"Its attraction is more social than anything else. It is the only institution in New Zealand that is like a British university town, which is largely residential with most of the students living away from home," Smyth says.
"That has generated plenty of problems for them over the years, but it has also made the place very attractive and exciting for young people."
Arts and humanities
Our universities rank highest in the arts and humanities in the QS rankings, and highest along with education and law in the Times ratings. The Shanghai system focuses more on science and technology, and does not rate languages, history or philosophy.
The University of Auckland's arts and humanities are rated 57th in the world by QS, and between 101st and 125th by Times, both ahead of other NZ universities.
Auckland's best rank for any individual subject is 25th for archaeology in QS. It also ranks best in NZ for English language and literature, history, modern languages, performing arts and philosophy, and first-equal with Victoria and Canterbury for linguistics.
Otago, our oldest university, is the only one ranked for classics and ancient history (47th in the world) and theology and religious studies (51st-100th).
Someone who graduates under age 25 with a bachelor of arts (BA) in languages and literature earns most after nine years from Victoria University ($63,000), possibly in Wellington's well-paid public service.
Enterprise Recruitment chief operating officer Ian McPherson advises people to "study where you want to end up working".
"A lot of the work experience is in the local area, and that often leads to opportunities," he says.
The University of Auckland again tops the NZ rankings for what Times calls social sciences and QS social sciences and management.
In sociology, QS ranks Auckland first but Shanghai ranks only Otago.
In politics, QS ranks Auckland and Victoria first-equal. Shanghai rates those two equal with Massey, Canterbury and Otago.
Both systems put Auckland first in economics, and all three agencies place Auckland first in psychology.
However, Otago social science graduates average the highest earnings after nine years ($73,000). They are unlikely to be still in Dunedin.
Auckland and Victoria rank equally for law in the Times rankings. QS puts Auckland first and Shanghai puts Victoria first.
However once again Otago graduates earn the most after nine years ($103,000), although they are likely working in Auckland or Wellington.
"There are two places that employ new graduates at degree level, Auckland and Wellington. Auckland has the head offices, Wellington has the government," says Christchurch-based Smyth.
"Apart from the professions - accounting, law, schoolteaching, nursing and engineering - to get on a career ladder in Christchurch, you leave town. Even the law profession is different outside Auckland and Wellington, where the big law firms are."
Auckland ranks well ahead of all our other universities for education studies - 27th in the world in QS, 46th in Times and 51st-75th in Shanghai.
But teachers can now qualify at 23 institutions including six polytechnics, four wānanga and six private institutes as well as seven universities, and Education Personnel chief executive Stuart Birch says schools employ good teachers from all of them. All teachers are paid on the same national scale, earning up to $71,000 after nine years.
"There's no hierarchy that I'm aware of in terms of better or worse courses. A lot of the employability of graduates comes down to how someone presents themselves, how they have succeeded in their practicum," he says.
The four wānanga offer training partly for Māori-language schools, including the Auckland-based specialist provider for kura kaupapa, Te Wānanga Takiura o Ngā Kura Kaupapa Māori. But their graduates are also qualified to teach in mainstream schools.
There are also two Christian institutes, Bethlehem in Tauranga and Laidlaw in Auckland, but Birch says their graduates are not confined to Christian schools.
"We treat them the same as any other teacher," he says.
As befits our commercial capital, the University of Auckland ranks first for business and economics in the Times ratings, first for management and finance on the Shanghai scale, and first in QS for accounting and finance, and business and management.
Auckland graduates also earn the highest median incomes after nine years ($89,000).
Communications and media
Communications and media studies are the most popular element in a broad category which New Zealand labels creative arts. QS ranks the University of Auckland top in it for this country, but the Shanghai system puts Massey first.
Median incomes after nine years are highest for AUT ($75,000).
All three rankings agencies rank Auckland first for computer science, and Victoria second.
But the highest-paid graduates nine years after completing a degree actually went to Weltec (Wellington Institute of Technology), earning a median $99,000, followed by Manukau Institute of Technology or MIT ($90,000).
Love-Smith, the IT recruiter, says employers want "hands-on skills".
"People coming out with degrees in computer science or whatever it might be, they are coming out very strong in the theoretical sort of things, but not with an awful lot of practical hands-on experience," he says.
"You tend to hear that the polytechs, the Aras of the world [Ara is the former Christchurch Polytechnic], do tend to turn out students that have a bit more hands-on practical experience than the traditional universities."
Maths and sciences
The University of Auckland ranks first for maths and statistics in the QS and Shanghai rankings, but Times ranks Auckland, Victoria and Otago first-equal for the broad field of physical sciences.
QS ranks Auckland top for biology, chemistry, physics, geography and environmental studies, and first-equal for geology (with Victoria) and earth sciences (with Victoria and Otago).
Shanghai puts Auckland first for biology, chemistry and environmental science, and first-equal with Canterbury for physics, and with Victoria for geography and geology. It puts Otago ahead for oceanography, and Otago and Victoria first-equal for earth sciences and atmospheric science.
Victoria science graduates earn slightly more after nine years ($76,000) than Auckland's ($74,000).
Gareth Robertson of science and technical recruitment company Scitex says "qualifications, while important, are merely one form of a door opener – they alone won't get you your dream job".
"Often specific experiences or hard skills are critical, but the area most candidates under-play is soft skills," he says.
"Soft-skill requirements will vary by industry, business, role, but often include effective communication, ability to relate and build relationships with others (especially those who are from different background to you), problem solving, perseverance, thinking on your feet, working under pressure/stress/deadlines. These soft skills are vitally important."
The University of Auckland's engineering subjects all outrank other NZ universities in all three ranking systems with only one exception - civil engineering, where Shanghai rates Canterbury first although Auckland is still first in QS.
Auckland engineering graduates also earn the most after nine years ($105,000).
QS ranks our two medical schools at Auckland and Otago 94th-equal in the world for what it calls "life sciences and medicine".
Shanghai, oddly, rates both equal with AUT for "clinical medicine", even though AUT's health programmes are only in nursing and specialities such as physiotherapy and podiatry.
Even more oddly, Times ranks AUT ahead of both Auckland and Otago for "clinical, pre-clinical and health", with far more citations than its two older rivals.
But QS and Shanghai both rate Auckland first for nursing and pharmacy. Only Otago offers dentistry.
Nine years after graduation, median incomes are slightly higher for young Otago medical graduates ($144,000) than Auckland's ($140,000).
For nursing, Unitec graduates earn the most ($74,000).
Fleming from Medcall says all the nursing courses are "pretty standard".
"There's a lot of post-qualification stuff that matters - who you work with, what type of experience you get," he says.
Only the Shanghai rankings rate NZ agricultural science, ranking Massey first ahead of Lincoln and Auckland. Massey is also the only place that teaches veterinary science.
However young Lincoln graduates with agriculture degrees just edge out Massey graduates in median incomes after nine years, with $75,000 to Massey's $73,000.
The infamous student culture of Dunedin was the deciding factor for Jimmy Hayes as he weighed up studying in his hometown or Auckland or moving south.
The 21-year-old future doctor could have easily followed in his older brother's footsteps and studied at the university just a few minutes from the family home in Grafton but the old villas of Castle and Leith Streets beckoned.
"I was heavily considering going to Auckland but I was also keen to try moving away from home and I heard the student culture was pretty cool," Hayes says.
"It was the best decision I have ever made. I have loved meeting new people and have gained so much independence and an appreciation of what I do have at home."
Like most first-year students Hayes stayed in the residential halls in Dunedin before making the move to Leith St, near the infamous Castle St, in his second year.
"There were definitely times where you get carried away with the partying but everyone is there for the same reason - to get their degree," Hayes says.
"When it comes to it everyone manages to do the work."
Hayes chose medicine because he loved sciences at school and his brother was already studying medicine at the University of Auckland.
"I also like the idea of solving problems and helping people so to me medicine was the perfect way to do both."
Living in the residential halls and then flatting just a five-minute walk to campus meant there was no travel time and costs for Hayes.
It also freed up time for part-time work to help with accommodation and food costs.
"I worked part-time this year and last year. I tutored at one of the halls last year and this year I worked as a caregiver for a man with cerebral palsy.
"It gave me a taste of how I could help as a doctor."
Living away from home has given Hayes independence and responsibility he says he wouldn't have gained at home in Auckland.
"I think moving away from home I appreciate what I do have at home and I have gained some organisational skills.
"I have met really cool people from all over New Zealand so I know no matter where I go, I will have someone I know."
Next year Hayes will move to Christchurch to spend time working the hospital wards as part of his degree.
"I am gutted to be leaving Dunedin, especially because some of this year was spent at home because of lockdown.
"It has been such an amazing time and I would recommend it to anyone looking at studying away."
Saving costs at home
Living at home with family while studying locally was the obvious choice for University of Auckland student Thomas Milliken.
Having his parents' support was important and the 20-year-old decided against a part-time job so spending money on rent and bills was not an option.
"The course I wanted was offered elsewhere but I liked the schedule for the geographic information paper at Auckland," he says.
"It was easier and more affordable to stay at home than to go flatting or pay rent at some other student accommodation."
Before Covid-19 hit, Milliken was studying full time with classes starting at 8am and finishing at 6pm.
It takes more than an hour and 40 minutes to travel each way from the family home in Pukekohe and a mix of car, train and walking to get there.
Work on the train line from Takanini to Auckland caused further disruption and a frustrated Milliken says the work is expected to be finished on November 15 - the day after his final exam.
Despite the travel time, Milliken would rather study at university than at home where he is easily distracted.
"I struggled mentally and found it really difficult not being in the routine of going to uni, meeting friends, and studying," he says.
"I study better at university because at home there is a PlayStation and my phone and I fall into a bad pattern," Milliken admits.
The disruption of Covid-19 on classes and mental health struggles brought on by studying at home saw him drop a paper this semester.
It means his course work is more manageable but it will put an extra year on his degree.
Despite the struggles, Milliken has no regrets about his course of study or the decision to stay with family as he completes his degree.
"It was great to have family support during Covid, I know it would have been harder if I was flatting or living alone," he says.
At the end of his studies, Milliken is looking for a career as a surveyor, a geospatial analyst, or in computer programming.
"I feel really safe with what I have chosen to study and I think there will be a lot of opportunities career-wise.
"Covid means I might take four years to complete my study but I know there will be a job for me at the end of it."