Over the weekend, I contributed to a panel session run at the Tertiary Education Union’s conference. My notes are copied below.
Notes for address to the Tertiary Education Union’s conference, Voices from Tertiary Education, 23 July 2016.
Dr Eric Crampton, Head of Research, The New Zealand Initiative
Check against delivery.
I’d like to thank the TEU for inviting me onto today’s panel. I’m sometimes a token free-market diversity addendum to these kinds of panels, but the TEU has done a great job in having a really diverse set of commenters on our panel’s assigned topic, “A look at the educational needs of society and the economy”. I thank the organisers for that.
I’ll start with a bit of background: I served as lecturer and senior lecturer in the Economics Department at the University of Canterbury from 2003 through 2014 before moving to Wellington to serve as Head of Research with The New Zealand Initiative, a public policy think-tank. I still keep a foot in the lecture theatre though: I taught Public Finance for Victoria University’s School of Government this past semester.
I’ll take perhaps a deviant tack on the topic and say that it is impossible for any of us here to be able to say anything terribly specific about what society, or business, will need in 20 years’ time. We have a pretty good sense of where there are current job shortages: in which sectors businesses are crying out for qualified workers, and in which sectors qualified staff are a dime a dozen. But I just do not think it is possible for any of us to be able to look out a couple of decades and say whether the country will be facing shortages of biologists, computer scientists, or critical literature specialists.
So what we really need is a system that is robust to not really knowing what the future holds. We’ve never really known what the future will hold, and it’s pretty clichéd to say that the pace of change is accelerating, but it at least doesn’t seem to be getting easier to say what things will look like in 20 years.
But what we are getting better at is data analytics. I don’t think we can use those to project what’s going to be needed in 20 years’ time, but we can do a much better job of making education and outcome data available to students and their families, so that each of them can make their best forecast of where they might fit in tomorrow’s economy.
What do I mean? Right now, MBIE does a great job in putting out employment forecasts showing which jobs currently look like they’re hot prospects: where employment and salary expectations are strong. But does it help a kid who’s barely making NCEA ‘Achieved’ in easy standards to find out that there are strong employment prospects for civil engineers? Not so much. And what about a smart kid in a poor school where there’s been little history of sending students through to tertiary – how can that kid know that astrophysics should be an option for her?
I’ll tell you a little story about where I went to high school. It was a small town in southern Manitoba, 200 kids from kindergarten through to Grade 12. Sometime around the eleventh grade we all did career testing on computers. I did pretty well on all of the skills they tested – I think my worst one was in mechanical and spatial reasoning, so engineering would have been a bad fit. But I did particularly well in the clerical speed and accuracy test. Why? I’d had a Commodore 64 since I was in the second grade and knew how to type. And so our guidance counsellor, who went through the results with me afterwards, asked if I’d considered a career as a clerk. Maybe I should have, but probably not.
Data’s gotten a lot better since. Right now, it is entirely within the wit of the Ministry of Education to produce student-specific reports telling each and every student in the country what outcomes have been for students who, from where they currently are, tried different paths. They could tell every child that, of 1000 students who are very similar to them in terms of grades and courses taken and family background, the 200 who went on to get a trades certificate had these kinds of outcomes, the ones who tried different university degrees had these other kinds of outcomes, and those who went directly into the workforce had still this other set of outcomes.
All of that data sits within the Statistics New Zealand’s Integrated Data Infrastructure, which links up all of the back end data that the government has about all of us. It is entirely possible to link NCEA scores for students from 2004 onwards to their training choices, training outcomes, and ultimate employment. Now past performance is never a guarantee of future success, but finding out more about what students like you have been able to achieve is a lot better than being told that, because you can type well, you should be a clerk when you really should be thinking about where to get your doctorate.
With that kind of information, students could start making much better informed choices about their education and training options. And even better if universities and training institutes started actually publishing data on outcomes – not just for graduates, but also for those who enrolled and dropped out. If attrition rates are high, advertising employment and salary outcomes for the ones who make it is a bit of false advertising.
That helps students make more informed choices. But the range of options they can choose across depends critically on the quality of instruction they’ve had prior to tertiary. The most generous student loan and bursary scheme in the world will not help a poor kid who has been trapped in a school where the maths teachers do not understand calculus and where expectations are low.
And so I will make a perhaps controversial pitch to this audience: tertiary reform has to start by redirecting some resources from the tertiary sector back into primary and secondary schools. And this isn’t just to help the kids stuck in failing schools and to let the sector boost pay by enough to attract more highly skilled people into teaching in the first place.
It’s also because we should be humble about picking winners when we cannot see the future. Having an exceptionally strong primary and secondary sector, combined with really good data helping students make choices across tertiary options – even if those students then have to pay a bit more for it out of their own pockets – is policy that remains fit for purpose even when circumstances change. Students who come out of high school literate, numerate, and able to reason their way through complex problems have the base they need for any kind of tertiary study, or to change focus mid-career in a changing world.
Rising uncertainty about the future makes a strong case for building generalist skills at an early level, getting each child up to that child’s full potential by the time the kid hits 18, rather than focusing on developing specialised skills for the ones lucky enough to have had the training to let them into university. Better data analytics helping each student have realistic expectations about the options available to them and, I think, would help encourage more students to see the real potential available in vocational training rather than assuming that getting a C average in an Arts degree is any kind of path to prosperity. But, the nice thing is that, if I’m wrong, the data would show students that too and let them make the choices that are right for them – rather than having experts push them into STEM, or whatever else.
Refocusing resources towards better data analytics and towards strengthening primary and secondary schooling is not only better for business in helping ensure a skilled, flexible and adaptable workforce, it’s also better for society. Remember that, compared to decile 1 and 2 schools, more than twice as many kids from decile 9 and 10 schools make it into tertiary in the first place. Our current policy of spending over $600 million dollars per year on subsidies through the interest-free student loan programme does a great job of subsidising access to tertiary education for the kids who would have gone to university regardless of 0% loans, and nothing to improve prospects for those shut out of university by poorly performing primary and secondary schools. That needs to change.