According to the OECD, New Zealanders waste a lot of time and money on tertiary education. They are right. Formal education can give graduates the skills and a framework for a career. For those who wish to put a dent in the universe and have creativity, talent and self-confidence, the lack of a degree is no barrier.

I am not one of those people. I failed at my first attempt to get a degree and my inadequacy led me to a career in what polite society refer to as the informal economy.

When it was time to play the role of the prodigal son I began by completing an economics degree before stepping reluctantly into the rat-race. Funnily enough, I have proved to be a very adept rat.

That degree paved the way for me to reintegrate and some of the concepts have proved handy but there is nothing tangible in what I learned that has made me any money.


Rather, graduating proved to myself and anyone else who was interested that I possessed the ability to complete a degree. This is the single biggest value in tertiary education - it is a proxy for talent.

There is evidence a degree is linked with a higher income but the problem with measuring returns to education is trying to determine causality. Smart people, as a general rule, earn more. They also default to university.

The OECD found that New Zealanders gain a relatively low return on their investment in tertiary education. Treasury determined that part of the reason is a low level of capital compared with our OECD peers and distance from larger markets. Many resolve this problem by migrating.

But the OECD analysis did not distinguish between returns to degree and non-degree tertiary qualifications. According to Treasury, locals who attain a degree retain an income advantage but those who toil for a lower qualification do not. A Certificate in Waka Ama from the local wananga (a 36-week course teaching you to paddle a canoe; I am not making that up) is not going to give graduates much of an economic return and we churn out a lot of such nonsense qualifications.

Because we all intuitively understand these qualifications are worthless they fail to either build the confidence of the graduates or signal anything positive to potential employers.

Study is good economics for those seeking to become a dentist or a lawyer but for many, life skills are best learned in the workforce, not in a second-tier educational institute. The movement away from skills learned in an apprenticeship towards fluff such as waka-paddling does young people a disservice.