Valuable information? Decision-making tools for students

Hannah August

The decision about which course of study to follow is an increasingly important one for tertiary students. Their choice will affect both their future and the future shape of tertiary institutions whose course offerings are enabled by student demand. Yet the information being provided to students to aid their decision-making is narrowly focused and imperfect.


The most recent Annual Report on the Student Loan Scheme states: “Reliable information on the outcomes of tertiary education is important for learners to make informed tertiary education decisions. This information enables them to assess the likely value of available tertiary education options. (p. 17)” Several publicly funded resources exist in order to guide students to “make informed study choices (p.10)”, as the current Tertiary Education Strategy puts it. They include Studylink’s Sussed? What will you study? and Careers New Zealand’s Compare Study Options  tools, and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Occupation Outlook information sheets. The information they provide to guide prospective students’ choices is, however, largely limited to data that frames the ‘value’ of tertiary education in economic terms. This is to be expected given the Government’s insistence that the purpose of tertiary education is to “[e]nhance human capital and labour skills (p.14)”, yet this narrow framing means that prospective students are not given information about other non-instrumental types of ‘value’ offered by their course of study – greater knowledge of which could allow them to make a truly informed decision. Furthermore, the data deployed in some of these resources is presented in such a way that even when attempting to assess the financial returns of their investment in study, prospective students are not, in fact, working with ‘reliable’ – in the sense of being able to rely on – information.


Of the resources listed above, MBIE’s “Occupation Outlook” is the best conceived. Its aim is to provide “education, employment and income information on 60 key occupations in New Zealand to give you a clearer picture of possible career paths”. Users are confronted with a visual representation, in the form of stylized ‘dials’, of the average income levels, study fees, and projected job prospects for the occupations listed. Although the framing is economic, opening the PDF information sheet for each occupation reveals a slightly wider lens: for instance, the sheet for Actors , while indicating that the profession tends to be both low-paid and with poor employment prospects, also acknowledges that “there are other rewards to the occupation, including working in what can be a dynamic and exciting industry.”


Acknowledgement of the ‘other rewards’ of employment or study is firmly outside the remit of Careers New Zealand’s “Compare Study Options” tool. This site allows users to input two alternative study paths, and compare the typical earnings and employment prospects for graduates in the two fields specified. It also suggests some ‘Related jobs’ for the qualifications listed. A sample comparison reveals some of what is problematic about this tool.


The Government is currently focused on increasing the number of graduates in the so-called STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), creating an implication that other possible study paths have less ‘value’. This implication is present in a comparison, undertaken using the “Compare Study Options” tool, between two degree choices: a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and Religious Studies, and a Bachelor of Science in Natural and Physical Sciences. Two years after graduation, the median earnings of the BSc graduate were $42,754, while for the BA graduate they were only $35,709. The employment rates for the BA were actually higher than they were for the BSc (51% versus 42%, two years after graduating), but a pie graph seeks to reassure those considering the BSc that a large percentage of Science graduates go on to postgraduate study, explaining away the low post-graduation employment rate. There’s no such graph underneath the BA data.


Clearly, it is not a legitimate ‘comparison’ if the same data is not provided for both degrees. Other indications of the bias towards STEM include the choice of ‘Related jobs’ provided for each degree. For the BSc, the range is diverse: Private teacher/Tutor, Statistician, Meteorologist, Economist, Market Research Analyst. For the BA, there’s only one: Minister of Religion. While the BSc is made to appear a qualification that opens a wide range of doors, the listing underneath the BA implies a profound lack of understanding of what a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy or Religious Studies actually is.


More concerning is the source of the earnings data. It’s from a 2014 Ministry of Education report, and presents the income of young graduates who were working in NZ in the 2011 and 2012 tax years. In other words, the ‘two years after study’ earnings figures are those of the cohort who graduated into the global financial crisis, meaning they might not be the most representative numbers on which to base future decisions. Other useful contextual information is also omitted, such as the fact that two thirds of arts graduates are women, and that their seemingly less attractive median earnings might have just as much to do with the gender pay gap as with the intrinsic ‘value’ of a BA.


That this ‘value’ is narrowly conceived of as economic is confirmed once more by the language used on the homepage of Studylink’s Sussed site. This is essentially a budgeting tool, to help prospective students take stock of how much their education will cost depending on what and where they choose to study, and to “[c]heck out […] whether ultimately your investment is going to pay off.” Users are told that Studylink “can help with information about student finance to make sure your choice is: Affordable; Valuable; Achievable”. Hovering the mouse over the word ‘Valuable’ brings up the questions: “What will it cost? What will you get back at the end of it?”


Here are some of the things that graduates of New Zealand universities recently said they ‘got back’ from their Bachelor of Arts degree.


I gained a framework to critically engage with the world. I see everything as constructed by society and language, not as essential and unchangeable. This makes me feel empowered.


My degree […] helped me become a more compassionate, caring, open minded, non-judgemental person.


I feel like it’s helped me understand our society much better and has helped keep me sane. Learning about people’s historic trials and tribulations contextualises my troubles and makes me more positive about everything.


My study introduced me to ideas that gave so much more meaning to my life in general: existentialism, phenomenology, the works of Jean-Luc Nancy. […] Prior to engagement with these ideas I felt directionless.


My BA made me a better person.


These answers were given in response to a survey question asking graduates to describe what they saw as the ‘value’ of a path of study that is typically (although not entirely accurately) seen as having low economic worth. They describe the ‘other rewards’ of tertiary study, the non-financial returns that are missing from the resources created “for learners to make informed tertiary education decisions”. Rather than focusing solely on economic outcomes, it is equally important to stress these other benefits, not least because there are a number of jobs that are crucial to our society while remaining comparatively low-paid; if all future graduates were to choose the study paths that looked as though they would lead to the best-paid jobs we would face a shortage of workers willing to fill important but poorly remunerated roles. Encouraging young people to base their learning decisions on inadequate, narrowly focused data is neither in their personal interest – nor that of the public.




Hannah August
About the author

Hannah August

Hannah August researches and writes about New Zealand contemporary issues. She holds a PhD from King’s College London and is the author of No Country for Old Maids? Talking about the ‘man drought’ (BWB, 2015). Her work has also been published in the Times Literary Supplement, Metro, and the National Business Review. She has been a Commonwealth Scholar, a Fellow of the New Zealand Federation of Graduate Women, and was the 2016 Summer Resident at the Michael King Writers’ Centre. Her current research is focused on the way the humanities are valued in twenty-first century New Zealand.