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Is university necessary for all?

By Phil Rennie - posted Thursday, 18 October 2007

Sacked University of Auckland academic Paul Buchanan says universities are dumbing down their standards to attract more students. If so, it’s working - the number of tertiary students has doubled over the last 15 years.

But is university suited to everyone?

Do we really need so many students, especially when it’s so expensive for both the taxpayer and the individual?


Should we aim to have every single young person in university, and if not, when do we say enough is enough?

Universities used to be elite institutions for only the brightest of students but since the 1960s the number of tertiary students has increased 10-fold. This reflects a now common view that going to university is the only way to have a successful and rewarding career.

But despite billions of dollars in extra government funding, there is still a serious mismatch between graduate numbers and the shortages in the trades. Anyone who’s struggled to find a builder or a plumber knows all about this.

The tragedy is that there are thousands of young people with good practical skills and smarts who could be making a great career for themselves. Instead too many of them are sitting in a lecture theatre at university for three years, doing courses they don’t particularly enjoy.

The trades have suffered from an image problem over the years but they offer satisfying and creative work, good money and the chance to start your own business.

Meanwhile, there is no shortage of lawyers or arts graduates. In fact, only about half of law students actually become lawyers.


At first glance university might seem a pretty good investment in your future. Ministry of Education figures show that adults with a tertiary degree earn 29 per cent more on average than those with only an upper high school education, and graduates have a better chance of finding a job in the first place.

But the problem with these figures though is that they are the average outcome. What we need to know is the marginal benefit; that is, how much benefit is each new student gaining, in particular those with only average academic ability

So why is there such a mismatch?

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First published in the National Business Review, NZ on September 7, 2007 and on the Centre for Independent Studies website.

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About the Author

Phil Rennie is a policy analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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