I am a 24-year-old New Zealander pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Melbourne. This isn’t my first foray into tertiary education. I completed undergraduate and honours degrees at the University of Auckland – making this my sixth year being a full-time student. My mum calls me a ‘forever student’ and my dad laughed at me when I half-jokingly suggested I’d want to do a PhD. They are, of course, very supportive of my academic endeavours, but the idea that I would willingly spend years more at university without a ‘proper’ source of income was a bit much, even for them. The ever-building student loan situation may have something to do with it.
The question that I am frequently asked (by friends, extended family and even customers at the cafe I work at part-time) is ‘why are you still studying?’ In the past, I would launch into a full-scale explanation about how the years of writing essays and doing research would set me in good stead to be the best career woman I could possibly be: ‘It’s all about the discipline of studying’, ‘I can show potential employers that I have the drive to chip away at something’ , ‘I could be studying anything; I chose to study Arts’. And this is all true, but nowadays, after what feels like years of spewing out these semi-rehearsed answers, I have a much more straightforward answer: academic inflation.
This is a term I coined about three years ago. I had just been invited to complete an honours degree in English studies and was told by the careers advisor at my former university that I ‘don’t really have a choice, if I wanted to get a job.’ Apparently everyone, and their mum, had a degree (Arts or otherwise) and if I wanted to market myself as ‘employable’ then I needed to have a competitive edge. Was the careers advisor telling every confused student who crossed her path the same thing? Was everyone getting a postgraduate education? Academic inflation means precisely this. In New Zealand last year, university graduate numbers were at an all-time high: roughly 160,000 in 2017 alone. Not bad for a total population of 4.5 million people. In short: I kept studying because I didn’t have a choice.
The new New Zealand government has recently signed a bill that guarantees all first-time students one year free of tertiary education. This is not limited to just universities, but also applies to diplomas as well. Their election campaign promised that by 2024 tertiary education across every level would be free to all. And you know what? I get it. I understand that equal access to education is vital, if any country is going to declare itself centre-left, or democratic at all. But the thought that even more students will be entering the workforce at the same time as me, means that I simply cannot support this bill. Call me selfish – you are probably right! But one thing New Zealand, Australia and pretty much everywhere in the political-West does not need is more unemployable students. This first-year-free scheme is akin to the reserve bank pumping more money into the economy to combat rising prices of bread; a quick fix with lasting negative ramifications for the economy. The New Zealand Herald reported in December 2017 that an estimated 80,000 students were expected to get fees-free study in 2018. Awesome.
The 1960s and 70s in New Zealand were the glory days of education where nearly all university students attended fees-free. The government gave the universities, only five at the time, a lump of cash for them to spend on what they wished. Sarah Robson reported that ‘university campuses were a hotbed of political dissent and protest and students were actively engaged with issues on campus.’ Not to mention the usual partying, drinking and studying. How the hell did they have time? Robson’s article reveals that during these decades it was entirely possible to work during school holidays and actually save money. What a novel thought.
By the late 1980s, the education sector was ‘opened up to the forces of the free market,’ after a number of policies were introduced by the Labour government of the time. Their primary goal was to make universities in New Zealand entirely self-sufficient. In other words, if you wanted it, you had to pay for it. Mass protest ensued, complete with placards and the occasional arrest. The Labour government (as short-sighted then, as it is today) established a new funding scheme for students, in the form of student allowances and loans. The then-education minister Phil Goff maintained that these changes ‘would improve the access to and equity of tertiary education.’ In 1989 Rebekah Palmer suggested to ‘eat, drink and be merry while you can folks, for tomorrow we shall pay.’ As student debt continues to increase all thanks to this so-called equity, Palmer’s words are as true as ever.
But I cannot place all blame on the Labour Party. The 1990s in New Zealand saw the first of many tertiary education reforms. The National government introduced a new policy, which I can only describe as bums on seats. The extent to which universities would be helped out by the government was based on how many full-time students were enrolled. On the one hand this was clever – it meant that universities were forced to offer competitive pricing to their customers (the students). But on the other hand, it opened the floodgates to thousands more students eager to get their (non)competitive edge.
With all of this in mind, I can understand why the recently elected Labour government would seek to re-envision the golden days of the 1960s. University used to be a thing to aspire towards; graduates were on an elevated playing field, deemed to be the best and the brightest in the nation. However, now I hear of people entering tertiary education because ‘they don’t know what else to do,’ and besides it’s free, so what’s the harm? Group projects are harder than ever, when two-thirds of the team are only there to get their $179 a week from their government-granted student allowance. Yes, you read correctly: no fees to pay and free money on the tax payer.
So now we are at a crossroads: on the one hand, we seek to make education accessible to anyone and everyone. While on the other hand, my employability is threatened by this saturation of graduates. I cannot look to a precedent set by other countries, or even by other generations. University, once the pinnacle of education, is now something many do to pass the time. Learning environments can suffer if everyone isn’t switched on and engaged. Isn’t the working-world just one big group assignment, at the end of the day? For my sake, I can only hope that potential employers will be able to weed out the committed from the rest.
When I began to research this article, I have to admit that I was out for blood. I wanted someone to blame for academic inflation; someone I could point my millennial finger at and tell them it is their fault that I can’t get a job with merely an undergraduate degree. Whoever devised the participation certificate is probably at the root of all this. Tertiary education, like every semi-public sector, is at the mercy of the free market. The ever-growing enrolment numbers make university a necessary evil where only the history of the middle class is to blame. This will not turn into a rant about the ups and downs of capitalism – but I will say this: if we continue to place value only on those who design houses instead of those who build them, we will still have nowhere to live. But that is a conversation for another time.
 Tertiary Sector Performance Analysis, Ministry of Education. 2017. ‘Profile & Trends 2017: Tertiary Education Outcomes And Qualification Completions’. Wellington: Ministry of Education, New Zealand.
 Collins, Simon. ‘About 80,000 Expected To Get Fees-Free Study In 2018’. The New Zealand Herald, 2017.
 Robson, Sarah. ‘A Short History Of Tertiary Education Funding In New Zealand’. Salient, 2009.
Georgia Quirke-Luping is a student of the Publishing and Communications masters at the University of Melbourne. She spends all her money on coffee, which she now takes via an intravenous drip.