Equality of esteem in tertiary education

Published in The National Business Review (Auckland), 22 March 2019

Germany and Switzerland have long been famous for exporting cars, machinery and chemicals to all parts of the world. They are now becoming well-known as exporters of their dual education model.

Dual education combines on-the-job training with further formal education past high school. Apprenticeships have a long tradition in German-speaking countries, going back to medieval times.

Such apprenticeships have contributed to an educated workforce and enviable low youth unemployment rates. The average youth unemployment for Switzerland in the past two decades stands at just 3.4%.

No wonder other countries, including the US and the UK, are importing the dual education model.

There is a problem, though: To be an attractive proposition, young adults need to perceive apprenticeships as an ambitious pathway into employment. This makes it hard to introduce dual education in places with no historical and cultural grounding in it – or against the current global drive toward academisation.

For many years, the OECD has been pushing its member countries toward increasing the share of tertiary graduates. Achieving higher numbers of university graduates was a hallmark of progress. Lifting the number of graduates would signal greater education equality and increase productivity, the experts hoped.

As it turns out, it is not that straightforward. To begin with, not all university degrees are created equal. At least not when it comes to employment prospects. Degrees in media studies, gender studies or art history may require great intellectual curiosity and offer fascinating insights. However, they often fail to lead to good jobs while young people are saddled with student debt running into the tens of thousands of dollars.

According to PayScale, a company that collects and analyses wage data, bachelor’s degrees for education and fine arts attract average salaries of just $52k in New Zealand whereas a bachelor of engineering would earn $72k per year on average.

Even that presupposes enough jobs are floating around for all those graduates from courses with limited demand in the world outside academia. If those two-and-a-half places for Egyptologists in the economy are already filled, then even a PhD in the field will not help graduates much to earn a living.

As the joke goes: What does the unemployed art historian say to the employed art historian? “Can I have another pint, please?”

Needless to say, many vocational jobs pay much better than some jobs university graduates can aspire to. Think about it the next time you get an invoice from your plumber, electrician or joiner.

Unfortunately, many young New Zealanders are realising too late that university was not meant for them either because their degrees turned out lacking in use value or because their talents could have been better deployed elsewhere. This explains why the average age of our apprentices is in the mid-20s. It is a spectacular waste of resources to see young people spend their best and most formative years gaining an education that turns out to be the wrong course.

Countries with established dual education systems tell a different story. There, it is perfectly acceptable to go straight from school into apprenticeships, which are established and well-regarded. No school leaver has to justify choosing an apprenticeship.

Besides, in dual education countries no apprentice regards the apprenticeship as the end of the road. The vast flexibility built into Germany’s and Switzerland’s education landscape facilitates further study and genuine life-long learning. For example, a student can apprentice as a medical-technical assistant, work in the field, do a medical degree later, and maybe even do a PhD.

However, none of this can work if we continue to think of apprenticeships as something less ambitious, less prestigious, and only a career of last resort. If that is our thinking, we should not even begin to consider emulating the dual education model.

The crucial prerequisite for a good apprenticeships system is equality of esteem. The graduate of an apprenticeship should enjoy the same respect a university graduate does. The master builder should be just as proud as the MBA graduate.

It starts with changing the vertical hierarchy of achievement diagrams we show school students. Ours have doctorates at the top of the pyramid and other degrees below. In Switzerland, meanwhile, both vocational training and university education are shown at the same horizontal level (see diagram). Would anyone in New Zealand draw our own system with a similar equality of esteem? Hardly.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins has started a radical shake-up of New Zealand’s polytech and industry training landscape. But first we need a conversation about making apprenticeships a career of first choice and according them with the respect they deserve.

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