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February 21, 2005 | by  | in Features |
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Get a Haircut And Get a Real Job

When Vic moved its Commerce Faculty and School of Government to join Law and Architecture downtown, it seemed that stereotyping had come home to roost: “Cash degrees”, the ones that culminate in real jobs and good money, were now housed in the bustling corporate metropolis that would be their legacy, while humanities and social sciences remained upon the lofty perch of Kelburn, well situated to look down their noses at their vocational cousins. But are these stereotypes fair? Salient Editor Emily Braunstein asks whether wanting a job is really a bad thing.

What are you doing here?

This year there will be over 16,000 students studying, in some capacity, at Victoria University of Wellington. That’s over 16,000 people working towards a degree; over 16,000 spending, in most cases, borrowed money to gain a university qualification. And why?

Well, to get a job, of course.

Sounds facile, doesn’t it? People come to university to grow! To broaden their minds! To challenge convention! Universities are for scholarship and academia, not vocational learning – after all, we’ve got polytechnics for that.

That might be the perception, but according to Vic Career’s Manager Liz Medford, it’s not an entirely accurate reflection of reality. Careers, she says, are “seeing more and more students at the beginning of their studies who are concerned about their employment prospects and want to make sure they are making the right course choice. We have definitely seen an increase in the numbers of students seeking advice much earlier on in their studies than in previous years.” University students, it seems, are coming down from their lofty ivory posts to take a greater interest in what happens after they get their degree. Professor of Religious Studies Paul Morris perceives “pressures, enormous pressures on students from the student loan scheme, but also from this government’s education policy and the way that tertiary policy is to be integrated into the broader government aims, so that part of the product of tertiary policy will be things like greater export earnings, etc. So I think in that sense there is a collective pressure, both through policy and government, on students, through their schooling, through their parents and through their own life maps, which is a pressure on vocational study, on study that will pay off. So let’s not study literature and creative writing. I think that emphasis has permeated the institution.”

In recent years, there has been a lot of hype in this area. Helen Clark’s Knowledge Economy, the Student Loan Scheme and increased living costs, to name a few, have all been identified as factors influencing the nation’s young people to seek out vocation over scolarship. As a result, the claim continues, universities are offering fewer and fewer traditional academic subjects and more and more specialized professional subjects. The division between universities and polytechnics is blurring and the esteem once accorded to university degrees is ebbing as standards for assessment drop further and further. Universities are nothing more than cold-hearted corporations, concerned less with education than with the bottom line; scholarship has, in the infamous words of Bob Jones, “been pushed aside to accommodate the meanest intelligence with nonsense degrees in nonsense subjects and universities are today driven by commercial considerations”.

The above appears in Jones’ 2004 book Degrees For Everyone. As much a polemic as it is a novel, Degrees for Everyone is the story of Ralston, a fictitious university in a parallel present, taken over by “prominent City sharebrokers and merchant bankers”. They set about dismantling the Medieval Philosophy department of which our protagonist is Professor and creating Rubenesque Studies and Panelbeating Studies. The new Vice Chancellor has no academic background; the current Minister of Education has “Pay as You Enter” tattooed on his ass and a campaign against teaching mathematics in schools. The point is sharp as a nail and you’d have to be dull as steel not to get it: universities have lost their once-prestigious position in society and become nothing more than commercial enterprises delivering what their customers want in bite-sized chunks.

It’s a hard point to refute. At their hearts, universities are centres for research, and many of your lecturers will consider themselves researchers before teachers. But in simple terms, the way that New Zealand universities get funding is in direct proportion to the number of bums on their seats. The more money students pay to study a certain subject, the more academics get to research it; the less money students pay, the less research funding is allocated. Given this, it’s probably fair to say that if students want fewer academic and more vocational subjects, then that is what universities will offer. The issues, though, are more complex. Is it bad for universities to head in the direction of preparing students for careers? Is it wrong for you to want to study something that will get you a good job?

First things first. According to Morris, “there is more than one official history of the university. The romantic one is the kind of medieval cloister and the medieval colleges, Oxford and Paris and Bologne and Naples and we tend to think those are the origins of the university. There are very funny debates in universities. There was a huge fuss among theologians – this is in the 17th century – about the opening of a law faculty because they didn’t think it was a real subject! So in that sense I think, if you have that romantic history, then I think that the university clearly looks less and less like a place for the pure pursuit of knowledge in that sort of sense. But I think the true origins of our university are at the University of Berlin, and in the 1830s rather than the middle ages. It was a university which used industrial and commercial money as well as state funding.” Margaret Clark, Professor of Political Science and International Relations, makes the point that while “universities are doing a whole lot of things that they didn’t once do – I mean there weren’t Tourism degrees, there weren’t Nursing degrees – there’s always been Architecture and Veterinary Science and Law.” The movement, then, may be less severe than Jones and Co. paint it to be – away from Oxford and Medieval Philosophy, perhaps, and toward Berlin and Commerce.

Sid Huff, Professor of Information Management, reels at the suggestion that his subject is any less valid a course of university study than any other. This point of view, he says as emphatically as his precise Canadian accent will allow, is lauded by those “who equate it with running a computer. That’s the most common one.” After all, what does it mean to be an “academic” subject? It means researching, surely, and that’s not something that Huff’s subject is light on. “We sometimes are our own worst enemies!” He exclaims. “We put our own bars up for things like research and publishing higher than many other departments in the university do. We’re trying so hard to convince everybody else that we are academics too, that we do do theory and we do proper research and that sort of thing, that we make life so difficult for ourselves that we’ve gone too far. So actually the problem’s in the other direction, we’re not enough practical.” And not enough practical for whom? Well, for employers.

The hard fact is that modern university students do want to get jobs. They need to get jobs. As Paul Morris notes above, Student Loans have an impact on the choices that students make. Liz Medford agrees: “This [concern about gaining employment] is, in large part, the result of increasing fees and wanting to make sure [the students] get value for money. Many students want to be assured that not only is their investment in education worth the sacrifice of lost income while studying, but that they will also be able to pay off their loan in a reasonable amount of time.” And, adds Margaret Clark, “of course a lot of parents, now that there are fees and so on involved, a lot of parents are very anxious about: ‘Is this leading to anything, will this get you a job?’”

That’s it, then. Without the Student Loan Scheme, university students would continue to pursue the lofty academic courses whose demise is being so sorely lamented. Blame the Government!

Or not. Students might be reasonably more concerned with career planning, but the numbers suggest that this doesn’t automatically equate to an exodus from traditional academic subjects – read “the humanities” – and toward Commerce and IT. Both Morris and Clark are quick to point out that numbers in their programmes are steady, in fact growing; Huff’s, on the other hand, is struggling to get out of a downturn that it experienced after the 2001 dot-com bust. It is, he says, now getting “back into a much more stable and growing pattern, but during that bust period in the last couple of years, our enrolments have gone down and people have become disenchanted somewhat with Information Management.”

“Disenchanted” is an interesting word choice. It certainly does seem to Liz Medford that the popularity of degree courses or subjects wax and wane. “Fashions change” she says “ – and so does the value of a degree. One year it might be IT or Operations Research, another year it could be International Business. The Harvard Business Review reports that a Fine Arts degree is currently the hottest credential in the business world. They say the best way businesses have found to differentiate goods and services in the mind of the consumer is to make them visually beautiful and compelling. Arts graduates have these skills and employers think that the business skills can be learned on the job.”

Indeed, in-house training is a feature of almost every major corporation in the world. New employees are expected to go through a process of training when they arrive at a new job, and constant advances in technologies and changes in theory mean that they continue to participate in training throughout their career. Many employers are looking not for a graduate with a specific set of skills, but for a graduate whose university study has provided them with the intellectual nous to develop a skill set quickly and to use those skills in a strategic manner. This is precisely the message that Medford’s team is getting from employers. “In our survey of graduate recruiters last year, employers told us they want to recruit people who can fit into their environment and relate to clients. They must not only have the academic horsepower to understand complex issues, but must also be articulate and have good social skills [and the] ability to build relationships & networks.” Vic Careers undertakes a survey of graduate recruiters every three years, asking them what key attributes they seek in university graduates. Attributes such as “already knows how to do the job” featured in neither 2000’s nor 2003’s top 10, though “Strong verbal and interpersonal communication skills” was number one in both years, and “Analytical and conceptual skills” was number five each time. “It was interesting to note the emphasis on ethics in the most recent survey,” says Metford. “This could well be attributed to a global scene characterised by volatile markets, fraud and accounting scandals, Internet scams, intellectual property issues, terrorism and threats of war.” Employers, it seems, want more out of their employees than an apprenticeship – and that goes for university-trained vocational subjects too. “It is true,” admits Medford, “that many arts grads need to acquire specific vocational skills and qualifications in addition to their degree. As career advisers we often encourage Arts students to add Commerce or Science subjects to their degree. On the other hand, we also encourage the IT, Science and Commerce students to do Arts subjects like English, History and Classics – something to make them develop their writing skills” (For the complete table comparing 2000’s results with 2003’s, see page 33).

Huff has his own system for measuring this. Take, he suggests, “our MIM [Masters in Information Management] programme, for example, where students will come in who are working during the day and take a course or two at time, and over the course of three or four years they’ll finish this masters degree. They are one of our best populations for communicating the difference between what we do at the university level and what the polytech would do. They come out really appreciating that, you can tell when you talk to them. They’re right in the middle of a job, and one of the things they desperately want is not more technical training but a broadening and deepening kind of thing. And that’s what we try to give them in that programme.” Metford sees this phenomenon, too: “A number of mature people are coming in to see us because even if they have been with their organisation for years, they have been told that if they want to get to a more senior level, they’ve got to get a degree.”

There doesn’t really appear to be any danger that this university is becoming a glorified polytechnic. Numbers suggest, says Morris, that “there are still lots of people who want to do pure sciences and humanities and social sciences, but at the same time there are very clear phenomena in the other direction. So it’s hard to plot a trend.” Perhaps because the trend actually sits somewhere nearer the middle; when courses of study are divided broadly into academic and vocational, Clark observes that many of her best students “do a bit of both”. In fact, numbers-wise, last year 4,750 Victoria University students were enrolled in BAs, and 4,115 in BCAs. So if humanities are held up against commerce subjects, students really do seem to want a bit of both, in fairly even numbers – and that’s without even looking at BSc programmes, or LLBs, or BMus or BArch enrollments or any of the other courses at Vic that could be classed as either academic or practical.

Only 345 students were enrolled in joint BA/BCA programmes last year, however, and now the challenge for Vic and other universities in New Zealand is to continue to attempt to straddle these dual areas without cutting them off from one another. Sid Huff has some good ideas. “I’ve been doing this now for 30 years and I’ve become convinced that we can have our cake and eat it too,” he enthuses. “We can get over this conflict, it’s not either/or. For example, there’s an approach to teaching called research-centred teaching. The idea is that rather than teach straight out of a textbook – the same textbook that polytechs could use – we teach driven by the research that we and our colleagues in the research academic community have done. But we still teach the implications and the practical aspects of that research along with the theory of it. Now that’s something that polytechnics don’t do. They don’t do research, they don’t even know how to access it, where it is, what it means, how to interpret it, and that’s one of our strengths. So that’s an example of how you can have the best of both worlds, if you really work at it.” Indeed, this would not only keep students and employers happy, but may well be the path to funding from other areas. PBRF (Performance Based Research Fund) has become a bit of a dirty acronym in New Zealand tertiary institutions, but this, as Clark points out, may be the way to maintain the duality. Last year’s PBRF exercise was, she says, “an attempt to recognise by government that universities do some things polytechnics don’t, ie expect their staff to do research. And that, although it is administratively a hassle, is quite important I think, that government recognises and will recognise in their funding that university staff are expected to do some research as well as teach. So you could say that that’s a good, healthy development. And undoubtedly, if New Zealand’s degrees are to have anything like international standing, then it’s important that the distinction between polytechnics and universities be maintained.”

Really, there’s no reason why academic educations and vocational courses and career goals and self-fulfillment need each to be mutually exclusive from the other – and no reason why they can’t co-exist in a university environment. It’s not like needing a job is anything new. “People have always needed a job,” says Clark, although in the past there may have been less anxiety about getting one. Huff extrapolates: “It’s not that the universities are different, it’s that the world is different now. In my father’s era, when he was in university, in the 1940s, because it was the end of the war and jobs were available everywhere, no one even thought about getting a job. It was automatic. It was a question of ‘which one do you want’? [Even when] I was an undergrad in Canada in the ‘60s. It’s not quite like that today. The world now has higher expectations, so people everywhere – whether you’re in university or what you’re doing – are a little more attuned to the needs of employers and the needs of organizations.”

Moreover, it’s unfair to claim that universities were once not concerned with vocationality to some extent. Teachers, for example, have pursued university degrees in their areas for as long as they’ve been around to pursue. Traditional subjects like Philosophy and Theology were once pre-requisites for many pulpit positions – ironically, although Morris’ augmenting Religious Studies programme is not, as he points out, “training religious functionaries”, the earlier subjects from which it sprung might well have been. What it is fair to say is that growths in knowledge and industrialization have lead to demand for a more specialized workforce, which has in turn lead to more people going to university and then to university degrees becoming more par-for-the-course in the job market, and less elitist. If, however, there is any attack to be leveled here, it is surely not at universities themselves. Universities are, after all, only responding to the demands of employers, and recruitment staff in myriad fields see degrees as being prerequisites to employment. Medford: “Many recruiters assume that a university graduate will have developed certain desirable skills simply because they are a graduate. The job may not require a degree to do the work, but employers often use a degree as an initial screening device. Many people work in areas completely unrelated to their degree – but it’s usually their degree that gives them that first opportunity.”

That’s not to say, however, that universities shouldn’t try to stick to their roots, or that the division between universities and polytechnics shouldn’t be maintained. Again, that’s in keeping with the desires of consumers – students and employers. Medford makes it clear that broad-ranging educations comprising several different subject areas and requiring several different skill sets are often those looked upon most favourably by employers. A tendency on the part of students not to recognize this has been noted by academics too. Morris: “If it’s true that less lawyers are doing BAs or less accountants or less commerce students are doing other subjects because of costs, that there’s a kind of narrowing of the pool of knowledge, of the possibility of interactions between subjects… I think that it’s a kind of negative view, if you just see the university as just the acquisition of skills for the market place.” Huff isn’t so sure that the stereotype of BCA students coming in, getting C passes for three years and then leaving for a suit and tie is warranted – “Most students think about that, they don’t go blindly down that path” – but insofar as it does happen, he knows where to lay the blame. “When the institution makes it very easy to do that, and makes it much more difficult to mix and match and go out of their comfort zones, more and more are going to do that. If the university worked the other way, made it easy to go outside and made it difficult to stay within your one area, maybe that would help.” Huff has a solution for that, too. “One of the things we can do to some extent to try to help students is in terms of our internal organisational structure. For example, in the Faculty of Commerce students are required to take elective subjects, right? The way it’s set up now a lot of them take elective subjects in commerce. But we could – in principle, we could – require that they take them outside of commerce, so that they do take courses in English and Philosophy. There are some of those things that Victoria could actually do if they felt strongly about this issue.” Clark, too, sees a place for this: “A lot of students, consciously or not, seem to want to educate as well as train themselves. It makes life more interesting, of course. None of the questions are new, and none of the answers are set in stone, they have to be re-litigated by every successive generation. So I don’t see, as long as humans are human, that successive generations aren’t going to need to or want to grapple with the same ‘big questions’.”

So what are you doing here?

It’s okay if you don’t know. No matter what you study, it’s never going to be useless, and not even for all those “it’ll make you a better rounded person” wishy-washy reasons that people give (true as they may be). Even in employment terms, the evidence suggests, no degree is actually wasted. Just the very act of getting a degree speaks volumes to a potential employer, and if you get in a subject that really interests you, your enthusiasm should do much to recommend you as well.

But it’s okay if you do know, too. There’s no good reason, in historical or philosophical or commercial terms, why universities shouldn’t be gateways to careers, or why they shouldn’t teach subjects with some practical element to them. As the university money cycle and the PBRF show, universities are best equipped to educate you when they offer what you want, and right now Vic seems to be doing a pretty good job of that. But there’s a fine balancing act to be performed between academia and vocationality, and if you want a bit of both, then you have to demand that too, by voting with your enrollment papers – and more importantly, with your enrollment dollars.

Sid Huff has often chuckled at Victoria’s “It makes you think” ad campaign. “I think a lot of people sneer at it but deep down it’s really a good phrase that the marketing people have come up with, because that’s exactly what we’re about. We get people to think. Exercise your brain! And, without wanting to disparage polytechs too much, they don’t do very much of that. They teach how to do, how to write programmes in my field and that sort of thing, but they don’t spend very much time teaching you how to think.”

Enjoy your time at university, no matter why you’re here. Do what you want to do; be a success, and be proud of it. Just don’t forget to think.

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